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Mayoral Task Force Unveils Sweeping Plan For Addressing Philly's Preservation 'Crisis'

The historic Bourse building in Old City, Philadelphia

Philadelphia is the only city in the U.S. to be designated a "World Heritage City," but according to an organization in charge of preserving that heritage, it is in the midst of a "demolition crisis."

Those words were taken from the final report issued on Thursday by the Philadelphia Historical Preservation Task Force, a working group formed by Mayor Jim Kenney as an offshoot of the Philadelphia Historical Commission. The report detailed the myriad difficulties in protecting a historical building or redeveloping it, rather than tearing it down and building new, while recommending sweeping changes to address the issue.

Among the biggest problems, according to the task force, is that buildings are only nominated for preservation on an individual basis in a process that depends on citizens. If a building does not have historical protections, then a developer can demolish it at will if it has the zoning rights.

The task force proposed the creation of an all-encompassing index of buildings that could qualify for historical protections as nominated by the traditional sources. Rather than initiate a potentially arduous debate process, an immediate hold would be placed on a demolition permit for any building in the index while the PHC would then determine its historical status. To qualify for this index, which would be compiled after a finite window of time, a building would only have to meet one of the Commission's historical requirements.

Another proposal is aimed at easing the onerous burden that developers must meet when attempting to convert a historical building into a more modern use. The task force wishes to create a tier system, wherein buildings can be analyzed for significance and state of disrepair and potentially allow more significant changes, such as the use of modern construction materials.

Philadelphia City Hall

The task force also proposed a change to the much-debated 10-year tax abatement, which is applied to the improvement made to a property's value. For a vacant lot, that value is set at 0%, but not for existing buildings, essentially incentivizing demolition for tax purposes.

Like many measures in the task force's report, it would likely require an act by City Council, but incentivizing developers to keep historical buildings is a crucial element of the task force's recommendations, according to member and Ballard Spahr Team Leader for Zoning and Land Use Matt McClure.

“We can’t regulate [the demolition issue] away,” McClure told PlanPhilly. “Regulating them doesn’t guarantee historic buildings will be saved.”

McClure was a driving force behind the inclusion of a proposal to allow the "transfer of development rights" for historically protected buildings — a measure that bears some resemblance to the air rights purchases that spur a sizable amount of development in New York City.

Another preservation hurdle the task force seeks to eliminate is the zoning requirement that often can bog down the permitting process for adaptive reuse, as it did for the Saint Laurentius church in Fishtown. The decommissioned Catholic church sits in a single-family zoning district, and so would need a variance to be converted into apartments.

The task force recommended that any special purpose buildings — which the report defines as structures built for civic, religious or cultural spaces — be immediately granted by-right zoning as if they were in CMX-3, or dense commercial mixed-use, areas.

Among the long list of additional recommendations delivered by the 18-month-old group are the elimination of parking minimums for historical preservations, an end to impact fees levied by the Streets Department and provisions for accessory dwelling units on a property to allow redevelopers an additional income stream.

There will now be a monthlong public comments process ending Jan. 14, after which time City Council, the PHC or other city departments would take up the task of implementing the task force's recommendations.