Streetscape: The problem of being too desirable

Posted 3/30/16

by Diane M. Fiske

Streetscape is a monthly column about architecture, planning and urban planning.

Chestnut Hill has the advantage of being a highly desirable section of Philadelphia and …

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Streetscape: The problem of being too desirable


by Diane M. Fiske

Streetscape is a monthly column about architecture, planning and urban planning.

Chestnut Hill has the advantage of being a highly desirable section of Philadelphia and the disadvantage of being too desirable to would-be developers who may damage the neighborhood’s iconic quality, which is rich in history.

Even homeowners who recognize the historic value of their house and have every intent of preserving it can be tempted by a developer's offer of cash for their property, which leads, of course, to demolition and the subdivision of the property into smaller lots decked with new houses that aren’t exactly iconic.

A task force is gathering to try to find a way to keep the older homes in Chestnut Hill and appease homeowners who may have a legitimate financial need to sell their houses.

According to Chestnut Hill architect Larry McEwen, vice president of the Chestnut Hill Community Association's Physical Division and acting chair of the Development Review Committee, an organizer of the task force and vice chairman of the Land Use Planning and Development committee, there are 2,800 homes in Chestnut Hill. These homes vary in quality and value as to the period in which they were built, but only about a quarter of them can be claimed to have historic value.

For these, there may be a problem.

“Land values are increasing to the point where they outweigh the value of the house,” McEwen said. “Current laws only protect about half of a large site.”

He said the recent tear down of the house at 415 W. Moreland was a good lesson that made people start thinking about doing something to protect the historic properties in Chestnut Hill.

Even though the Edward Douglas house at 30 W. Chestnut Hill Avenue was designed by famed architect Theopolis P. Chandler, a 19th century dean and founder of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design, the developer who bought the home decided that tearing it down to make way for new construction was the best way to make money on the property.

“There really is little protection in current codes,” McEwen said. National Historic Preservation codes don’t protect every house in a given area.”

Preservation under the Philadelphia Historic Commission is stronger, but a house has to first be approved for protection as a historic property of value by the commission. Even then, only about half of a one-acre site can be protected.

When the new owners of 30 W. Evergreen applied for their demolition permit, the Chestnut Hill Historic Commission applied to the Philadelphia Historic Commission for protection.

The Chestnut Hill preservationists can breathe a little easier because the Philadelphia Historic Commission voted March 12 to give preliminary approval to protecting 30 W. Evergreen, and the next step would be a vote by the entire commission to recognize it. Meanwhile, the house cannot be demolished.

Protection, however, does not necessarily protect the entire site.

“Right now the largest required lot in the city is a quarter of an acre and many in Chestnut Hill exceed that.” McEwen said. “Anything larger that is not protected. A remapping of the city will not take place until 2018.”

John Haak, chair of the CHCA's Land Use Planning and Zoning Committee, said in a telephone interview that the task force has been established to include representatives of every faction dealing with historic housing and development, from Chestnut Hill boards to Realtors and naturalist groups such as the Friends of the Wissahickon.

“We want to understand how properties can be protected,” he said. “Of the properties in Chestnut Hill about one-eighth to one-fourth could be subdivided.”

Lori Salganicoff, executive director of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society and another founding member of the task force, said in a telephone interview that she felt the important component of the task force is breaking early goals for the preservation campaign down to two or more parts.

The first, she felt, was education and helping homeowners of historic properties to understand their options.

The second is development of tools. She felt the task force could provide homeowners with toots to decide to keep their homes with aids such as grants, land easements and other means of protecting and preserving their historic properties.

Most of all, McEwen said, the committee hopes to get Realtors involved.

“It does no good to sell a house and promise a buyer certain options and for the buyer to discover that these can’t be obtained,” he said.

It’s a big undertaking, but McEwen, Haak, Salganicoff and their partners hope they can find a way to make sure the easy way to make money on a historic property is not to tear it down.