DAG's Statement Regarding the Mayor's Task Force on Historic Preservation

Diamond Street

Credit: Library of Congress via Curbed Philly

This commentary piece is based on DAG's official response to the Mayor's Historic Preservation Task Force.  It was authored by Eli Storch, chair of DAG's own Historic Preservation Task Force, DAG co-vice-chairs David Brownlee and George Claflen, Jr. and Elise Vider, DAG chair.


With Philadelphia’s historic character under unprecedented assault, Mayor Kenney in 2017 wisely charged 33 experts with carefully reviewing and recommending changes to the city’s historic preservation apparatus to “best … balance historic preservation and new construction.”


There is a lot to like in the Philadelphia Historic Preservation Task Force report, released in December. The Design Advocacy Group (DAG), comprised of 1,700 design professionals and passionate urbanists, and dedicated to quality and equity in the built environment, especially applauds the “carrot, not stick” philosophy. (Full disclosure: four members of DAG’s Steering Committee served on the panel.) Carefully thought-out incentives and public outreach and education will go a long way towards removing the negative sting that some associate with the word “preservation.” We urge Mayor Kenney and City Council to take swift action.


DAG strongly supports the Task Force’s recommendation to amend the city’s 10-year tax abatement to make the rehabilitation benefit equivalent to the new construction incentive, for any type of rehab, regardless of historic status. This ingenious solution would provide equity for historic rehab projects, while avoiding the legal and constitutional pitfalls that prevent amending the tax abatement to specifically incentivize preservation.


We also applaud the proposal to allow by-right zoning for “special purpose” historically designated buildings (churches, theaters, gymnasiums, for example) if the owner commits to historic rehabilitation. Removing zoning hurdles that make it hard to bring new uses to old buildings will make it more likely that an owner or developer will rehabilitate and reuse an existing building, rather than demolish and replace it with new construction. This could be a remedy to the rash of church demolitions Philadelphia has experienced recently.


For many years, the city’s preservation community has called for an ongoing, citywide inventory of historic and cultural resources. DAG fully supports the recommendation to establish such a survey as a core function of the Philadelphia Historical Commission (PHC) and Department of Planning and Development.


But an inventory could take a long time, and today’s super-charged development climate demands immediate action. So the Task Force recommends – and DAG enthusiastically supports – a one-time index of eligible historic buildings that would be subject to a demolition delay of yet-unspecified duration. This catch-up provision could protect hundreds of so-far-undesignated properties around the city.


The Task Force correctly identified the process for appealing PHC alteration and demolition decisions as problematic. We support replacing the current appeals panel, the L&I Review Board, with a new, better-qualified entity. We also believe that the PHC process for determining financial hardship – a legal justification for demolishing a historically designated building – is due for a critical look.


DAG for many years has called for the appointment of qualified preservation (and design) experts to all relevant regulatory boards and commissions and we are pleased to see that the Task Force concurs. And we support posting staff reports and other moves to make PHC processes and deliberations more transparent.


Education and outreach are foundational to historic preservation, and DAG considers the Task Force’s recommendations here to be essential. We encourage the use of crowdsourcing as a method of obtaining broad participation, especially for the index and inventory. We also urge that all organizations, institutions and cultural organizations, especially civic and neighborhood groups, be kept informed and involved.


The Task Force proposes a few well-meaning incentives that could have unintended consequences. Transfer of development rights from historic buildings to adjacent or nearby sites, for example,  requires professional study and calibration.


In principle, “expeditious” notification of property owners when the PHC receives a nomination sounds like a great idea. But the reality is that, under the law, a property is protected by the Commission’s jurisdiction only once the nomination is “complete.” Hard experience has demonstrated that, if notice is given too early, property owners can undermine PHC authority by immediately seeking a permit for alteration or demolition.


We oppose charging the city’s Office of Property Assessment (OPA) with taking preservation restrictions into account, OPA  already uses comparable properties in determining its assessments, so this seems unnecessary. More significantly, it supports the unproven narrative that designation reduces property values and runs counter to the Task Force’s stated purpose “to convey the value of historic preservation.” We can also note that in some instances, designation has been opposed out of fears that it will raise property values and result in gentrification.


Regulation of new construction within designated historic districts also entails the risk to become counter-productive, with the unintended outcome of generating more opposition to historic district designation. This is another complex matter that requires further study.


The proposed preservation “light” districts are a promising idea, and DAG applauds their flexibility. But these new district forms require careful testing and analysis before any further action is taken. DAG also believes that all historic district levels (with the exception of the existing conservation district option) should regulate demolition.


In the weeks and months to come, we encourage continued outreach to the broadest possible audience. We believe that it is by educating the public on this process and the value of historic preservation that we can all hope to generate the greatest support and adoption of these ideas on behalf of a growing city that properly balances preservation with new development. This is a fundamental role for the city (PHC in particular must demonstrate strong leadership ), DAG and the entire preservation community.