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Philly has a new historic preservation task force

Preservationists, developers, and officials will work to update the city’s dated preservation ordinance

In light of Philly’s building boom, Mayor Jim Kenney said the city needs to update its historic preservation ways.
Photo by Melissa Romero

Mayor Jim Kenney announced today that he has organized a historic preservation task force in light of the city’s recent development boom and preservation battles.

“We will always have a clash between preservationists and developers, but we want to make sure that we have a process that allows it to take place in a more productive way,” the mayor said at today’s announcement.

The task force includes preservationists, developers, academics, and city officials like Councilman Mark Squilla. The team has been tasked with strategies and deliverables to protect Philly’s historic character and structures amid rapid development taking place throughout the city.

“It is a challenge,” Kenney continued. “We need to find ways to survey the city so that we can certify and designate historic resources and incentivize adaptive reuse.”

The city’s historic preservation legislation was written in 1985, a time when both the city’s population and job growth were dwindling. “Its efforts were in the context of a city in decline,” Kenney said. “There was little development pressure.”

Philadelphia is a different city now. Last year alone, it saw a 20 percent increase in issued permits for new construction. Meanwhile, some prominent development projects have been embroiled in preservation battles. One of the latest involves Toll Brothers’ plans to demolish six buildings along Jewelers Row and build a 29-story condo tower. The months-long ordeal has been heated enough for the mayor to issue two statements, urging the developer to try to save the buildings’ facades.

But Kenney said the Jewelers Row battle was not the impetus for the task force. Instead, he recalled an event that took place years ago, when he saw the new owner of a synagogue in Queen Village “jackhammering the Star of David.”

“I was freaking out because it was an outrage, but I was told we had no authority because it was not on our preservation list,” Kenney said. “These are the things we need to correct and move forward with people who want to develop and grow this city and others who want to preserve its architectural heritage.”

The chair of the task force is Drexel University’s Harris Steinberg, who is the executive director of the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation and once served on the Philadelphia Historical Commission for five years. Also on the task force is the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which will offer technical expertise. The William Penn Foundation is funding the group.

The task has 18 months of work ahead of it before it releases a final report. Steinberg said the months-long process will be open and transparent to the public.

“This is not a shelf project,” said Steinberg. “We will move forward quickly because the city is rapidly changing as we speak.”