STOP DEMOLISHING PHILLY. It’s a pretty straightforward sentiment. As Philadelphia has turned the corner on decades of population loss and actually grown over the past 20 years, it has increasingly come at the expense of the historic fabric that makes it such a desirable place to live.
History is Philadelphia’s brand. Birthplace of America. Workshop of the World. City of Homes. And yet, despite the historic bona fides, 21st century development has brought demolition into every corner of the city, driven by incentivized development in a tireless real estate boom, fueling gentrification, altering the city’s beloved neighborhood streetscapes.
Cities like Baltimore, San Antonio, and nearby Lancaster do a better job at protecting their places of historic and cultural significance (to say nothing of cities like New York, Boston, and Washington). In November 2015, Philadelphia joined the Organization of World Heritage Cities, a club of places around the world that feature a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Independence Hall is ours; UNESCO is not affiliated with the organization.) At the announcement, the organization’s secretary-general said that Philadelphia would “gain access to programs that help cities maintain and promote their heritage.” Mayor Jim Kenney sits on the organization’s board as a Vice President.
Kenney’s first mayoral campaign, also in 2015, included promises to strengthen the Historical Commission and prioritize preservation. In the same election, voters approved City Council President Darrell Clarke’s proposal to restructure the city’s agencies such that the Historical Commission would report to the new Department of Planning & Development. Then-president of the Building Industry Association of Philadelphia Anne Fadullon was appointed its director.
In 2017, the Mayor’s Historic Preservation Task Force began an 18-month project that resulted in little meaningful change. Ahead of the task force, in a letter seeking support from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Fadullon wrote:
The City will seek to enhance its ability to promote preservation and discourage demolition by considering mechanisms such as allowing for the transfer of development rights from historic sites, potential down-zoning along historic commercial corridors, and consideration of adjusting its tax abatement program. Further, as part of the comprehensive preservation plan is, the City will seek to investigate best practices regarding instituting a demolition delay ordinance to prevent the loss of important but overlooked historic resources not yet listed on the Philadelphia Register.
A demolition delay (which would mandate a period of review for historical significance of any building for which a demolition permit has been applied) is perhaps the easiest preventative measure against demolition. It has not been introduced by council or the mayor. A comprehensive survey of historic resources, a major recommendation of the task force, is slowly moving forward, with a target timeline of completion by end of 2022.
And perhaps most urgently, the 10-year tax abatement is finally being restructured, having long ago served its purpose of encouraging growth. Unfortunately, in the absence of a demolition review ordinance, or at very least a demolition moratorium through the end of 2021 (when the tax abatement will change), we can expect even more demolition notices.
Even as Philadelphia has been surpassed by Phoenix as the fifth-largest city in the US, our old city is growing again. This is great news. It should grow, and it should be encouraged to grow — responsibly, and not at a cost of sacrificing the things that tell the stories of earlier growth.
Dear developers, dear Mayor Kenney, dear Historical Commission, dear Licenses & Inspections: STOP DEMOLISHING PHILLY.
— Brad Maule, 2021