The demolition of Christ Memorial Church in West Philadelphia is the sort of razing of a historic building that local planners and preservationists fear if better measures aren’t taken to save them.

by Diane M. Fiske

A local column about architecture, planning and development in the area.

At 10 a.m. on Thursday, April 4, in City Hall, Mayor Jim Kenney presented the final draft of the Historic Preservation Task Force report.

The presentation of the stipulations of the task force, which were introduced in a rough draft in December, allows the mayor to explain his administration’s view of the future of historic preservation in the city.

This may have also eased concerns voiced by a new group, RePoint, made up of architects who organized to promote architectural preservation in the city.

The Preservation Task Force was formed in 2017 by the Mayor as a way of strengthening protections for the historic buildings in the city. It includes experts in historic preservation, development, architecture and other disciplines, as well as community members.

Finally, the Mayor’s presentation may have addressed concerns about the future of areas rich with architectural history such as those in Northwest Philadelphia.

A brief summary of the lengthy original task force proposal begins by stating that there would be a demolition review in the city that would apply to buildings that have been deemed significant. Tax abatements, which give developers of new buildings a 10- year period in which they would not pay taxes after the structures were completed, would be broadened to allow improvements to older buildings.

According to the proposal, property owners of designated buildings would be notified of the category of their building and any dangers of demolition.

In addition, there would be a system of review for buildings scheduled for demolition. The nomination process for buildings deemed valuable and scheduled for designation would be speeded up by the Philadelphia agencies holding hearings.

How the city will deal with the original preservation proposals will be important. This may address deep concern about preservation in the city, which is growing among the architects and planners who organized RePoint.

To architect Janice Woodcock, one of the six organizers of RePoint, “The task force has been frozen since it was introduced, and there was not any mention of any money for an item about preservation in the Mayor’s budget.”

Lack of funding can be corrected. The budget can always be “tweaked” to add money to designated items, according to Patrick Rossi, one of the Alliance experts.

RePoint was started as a result of the frustration of trying to save historically valuable buildings, such as those on Jewelers Row on Sansom Street in Center City where some historically designated buildings have been issued permits to be torn down by developers despite long struggles with organizations fighting for preservation.

Aaron Wunsch, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design in historic preservation, who, with Woodcock, is one of the organizers of RePoint, said he would attend the presentation and see if it will help a situation in Philadelphia, which, he said, is aimed toward “no developer left behind.”

He said the neighborhoods in Northwest Philadelphia, such as Chestnut Hill, Mount Airy and Germantown, are not protected against having valuable buildings torn down for rampant development despite being historically designated.

“Property values have gone up enormously, and Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill have few protections,” he said. “Germantown Avenue has been recognized as a national historic landmark, but only a smattering of buildings are protected, and these are all 18th century buildings.”

He added that the danger is that if a developer wants to build a 10-story building and tear down a valuable older building, he can not only get that done, but he can get “tax credit for the tear down.”

Wunsch pointed to the recent demolition of a noted, 19th-century building at Germantown Avenue and Horter Street, and said this was an example of the “steady erosion” of the ambiance that makes neighborhoods with historic architecture desirable.

One of the main problems is that many older houses are located on big lots, which developers can divide into numerous sites for new buildings, he said.

“The tax abatement is a giveaway for people who can hire expensive lawyers and get a long time to present their cases while people opposed are cut off quickly,” he said of preservation hearings. “This has to change and stop.”

Diane Fiske writes about planning and architecture for the Inquirer and is a regular contributor to the Local.

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