Updated: Overbrook Farms residents differ on historic designation

Update: After requesting a delay on the vote to designate Overbrook Farms historic last year, Councilman Jones has told PlanPhilly he is opposed to the designation. 

“When we start talking about a land area that large,” Jones said, “it’s kind of hard to create a one-size-fits-all [designation].”

Jones said residents both in favor of and opposed to historic designation should work together and with the Historic Commission to come up with a way to preserve Overbrook Farms’ most important assets without putting an undue burden on average homeowners. He said that specifically during a recession he didn’t feel it was appropriate to require home building and improvement to conform to the style of late-19th century architecture that characterizes the neighborhood. 

The Historic Commission had planned to vote on the designation Friday morning. Original story below. 

Just over a quarter of a century ago, Overbrook Farms, a domestic, architecturally-unique corner of Philadelphia, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. “The eclecticism that permeated the turn-of-the-century architecture is conspicuously evident in Overbrook Farms,” said the nomination for the National Register. “…Remarkably, the architecture of the homes has retained its original form.”

For  the last decade or so, some of the neighborhood’s residents have been trying to get Overbrook Farms designated historic by the City in order to ensure the architectural character of the neighborhood survives into the future. That effort has been led by the Overbrook Farms Club, a homeowners’ association which has been operating since 1892.

“The [historic designation] process has been in the works since we moved in,” said Stephanie Kindt, an attorney and member of the Overbrook Farms Club board. “We’ve been on a path to protect our neighborhood the whole time.”

One of the purposes of historic designation in the city, according to the Historic Preservation Ordinance, is to “establish historic districts to assure that the character of such districts is retained and enhanced.” Local historic designation accomplishes this by, among other things, limiting the amount and type of alterations which can be made to individual buildings in a historic district.  

And that’s why not everyone in Overbrook Farms is on board.

“At the local level,” said Jim Garrison, a senior associate at the architecture firm Frens and Frens, “[historic designation] does subject, typically, the owner to design review, which some owners object to.”

Garrison is neither a resident of Overbrook Farms nor an opponent of historic designation—in fact, he wrote a letter in support of its nomination to the Philadelphia Historical Commission last November. The Commission was set to vote on the designation in early December, but 4th-District Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr., asked it to delay the vote two months so that wary residents could have time to learn more about the consequences of historic designation.

Councilman Jones’s request to delay the vote was inspired in part by a swell of opposition from residents—including some prominent Philadelphians—who believed historic designation would limit their power to do what they wanted to do with their homes. The first that many Overbrook Farms residents heard of the designation was in a letter sent by the Historical Commission in September of last year.

The letter said that the Historical Commission would soon be deciding whether to designate the neighborhood historic, and alerted residents to upcoming public meetings on the topic. But, under the Historic Preservation Ordinance, residents were required to abide by historic designation regulations as soon as they received the letter—a provision intended to prevent homeowners from scrambling to make last-minute home alterations before the designation is official. Historical Commission director John Farnham was unavailable to comment for this article.

Stephanie Kindt admitted that the Overbrook Farms Club needed a “better communications strategy.”

“[The letter] really freaked people out,” Kindt said. “It really did.”

In his request for the Historical Commission to table the designation vote, Councilman Jones promised to hold meetings with residents on opposite sides of the issue during the two-month interim.

Jones has apparently done so, but some proponents of historical designation are claiming that he has sided with the opponents and indicated that he may introduce legislation which would prevent historic designation without the approval of City Council.

Tyrone Martin, a staff member in Jones’s office, said that no such legislation had been drafted yet, and that the issue was “still up in the air.” He confirmed that Councilman Jones had met with residents on both sides of the issue, but said that he hadn’t yet made up his mind about which side he was on.

John Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance, said that he had been in one meeting recently with the Councilman in which he’d mentioned that he had looked into drafting legislation around the issue, but hadn’t specified what it would look like. Gallery said there had been “very limited discussion at that meeting.”

“The Alliance is definitely supporting the nomination of Overbrook Farms,” Gallery said.

He also said that historic designation ultimately shouldn’t be determined by how many residents support and how many oppose, but by the actual historical importance of the proposed district. In promoting the nomination of Overbrook Farms, the Preservation Alliance has solicited letters of support from architectural historians and other experts—folks like Jim Garrison, who has written books about Philadelphia architecture during the time period characterized by the homes in Overbrook Farms.

Gallery pointed out that the City’s Historic Preservation Ordinance dictates that districts be designated historic because of their cultural importance, not simply because a portion of their residents want them designated historic. He said that Overbrook Farms fits seven of the ten criteria for designation named in the Preservation Ordinance.

Stephanie Kindt feels that, in the end, the issue should not be what historic designation will limit in the present, but what it will protect for the future.

“[Overbrook Farms] is the treasure of the city,” Kindt said. “It’s the treasure of the country.”

The Historical Commission is scheduled to hold a meeting on the historic designation of Overbrook Farms on Friday, February 10th,  at 9 a.m. in the City of Philadelphia Building, 1515 Arch Street, Room 18-029.

Contact the reporter at jaredbrey@gmail.com

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