What's Next for Philadelphia Historic Districts?
Over the next several years, Philadelphia may see the creation of several new local historic districts.
Under the city’s historic preservation ordinance, the Historic Commission may designate areas with distinctive architectural and historical characteristic as local historic districts. Thereafter, structures within a district are protected for the public’s benefit since the Historic Commission reviews building permits which would effect the exterior historic appearance of protected properties.
Currently there are seven such districts: Diamond Street, Society Hill/Washington Square West, Spring Garden, Rittenhouse/Fitler Squares, Girard Estates, FDR Park, and Park Mall (on the campus of Temple University), plus a “thematic” designation of historic street paving throughout the city. Together, these districts protect thousands of 18th, 19th, and 20th-century residences as well as commercial buildings, landscape features, and civic and religious properties.
Typical Old City Streetscape, Philadelphia
Most of these districts have been designated in recent years after a long hiatus during which the constitutionality of the city’s historic ordinance faced several legal challenges. Ultimately the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the city’s right to protect its historic resources in the public’s interest. Since then, new districts have been designated at the rate of about one per year.
Next up for consideration is the proposed Old City Historic District, the boundaries of which are roughly proposed to be: the Delaware River to Fifth Street, and Chestnut Street to Vine Street. This area contains approximately 800 historic buildings.
Old City was one the city’s earliest developed areas, and its street pattern still reflects William Penn’s original grid plan. Surviving buildings dating from the 1700s through the early 1900s illustrate Old City’s evolution from an early, river-oriented commercial and residential area to the larger commercial factories and wholesale warehouses of the 19th century.
In recent decades, Old City has been revitalized as warehouses were converted to apartments and condominiums, and storefronts into art galleries. Many Old-City residents and merchants, however, now fear that recent development pressures for new, high-rise residential construction and more night clubs threaten the community’s character.
The Old City Civic Association is supporting the historic district nomination as one way to protect the neighborhood’s historic character. The Historic Commission staff is currently reviewing the historic district nomination, after which property owners in the proposed district will be notified by mail of a series of public meetings. The Commission may consider the designation of the Old City Historic District in early 2003.
Across town, in West Philadelphia, the Spruce Hill Community Association, the University City Historical Society, and the Spruce Hill Community Trust have for years been promoting the designation of the Spruce Hill Historic District. First proposed fifteen years ago, the 42-block district encompasses hundreds of Victorian-era homes which were built when this area was developed as a streetcar “suburb”. Most of the documentation required for Commission review has now been completed.
Typical Spruce Street Streetscape, Philadelphia
Historic designation in Spruce Hill has been controversial, however, with opposition coming primarily from landlords who control much of the residential property in this historic area adjacent to the University of Pennsylvania. District proponents have been active by convening more than twenty block-by-block meetings to convey the facts regarding a district designation. (For more information on the proposed Spruce Hill district, check www.uchs.net.)
City Councilwoman Blackwell, who represents Spruce Hill and much of West Philadelphia, recently introduced a bill which would strip the Historic Commission of its historic-district designation powers, and give that power to City Council. While some see that change as being more democratic, many others fear that the process would become vulnerable to political influences.
In mid October 2002, the Preservation Alliance convened a meeting of community representatives from current and proposed city historic districts to determine how preservation advocates should respond to Councilwoman Blackwell’s bill. The bill has been referred to the Rules Committee, with no hearings yet scheduled.
Other neighborhoods considering historic district designation include Penn-Knox and Tulpehocken (both part of Germantown), Overbrook Farms, Queen Village/Southwark, Powelton, and East Falls. None of these communities, however, have seriously begun the sometimes arduous task of developing and researching the historical documentation required as part of a district nomination.
How are Local Historic Districts Created?
In Pennsylvania, state legislation passed in 1961 allows local municipalities to create local historic districts and protect the historic appearance of properties therein through a permitting process. In smaller municipalities, the local elected officials (e.g., township or borough commissioners) designate new historic districts based on the recommendations of the municipal historic commissions. In Philadelphia, however, the historic commission has the power to create historic districts on its own according to the terms of the city’s preservation code (Section 14-2007).
In Philadelphia, anyone may nominate (propose) a new historic district by submitting a preliminary summary description of the proposed district, upon which the Historic Commission staff will determine whether the potential district is eligible. If eligible, a great deal of further documentation and research is then required to support the nomination, which is why most communities retain a professional preservation consultant to complete this phase of work.
Once the submission material is deemed to be complete and correct, it is reviewed by the Committee on Historic Designation (open to the public) which makes a recommendation to the Historic Commission. At this point, the Commission must send written notices of public hearings to all the property owners in the proposed district.
Based on the recommendations of its staff and designation committee, and input from the public hearings, the Commission may then vote to designate, deny, or amend the proposed historic district.