Stained glass mix in Rittenhouse-Fitler Square
But since the designation of the Old City district, with 3,225 properties, in 2003, only three nominations have been approved. Four neighborhoods have filed nominations, including one that has been waiting for approval since 2002. Another community has been working on its nomination since the late 1990s.Size matters
The long waiting periods are all about size: the size of the proposed districts and the size of the staff that has to administer them.
“Anyone can propose the designation of an individual site or historic district,” explained Jonathan Farnham, executive director of the Philadelphia Historical Commission. Any city resident, or non-resident, can nominate an individual site or district, and the property owner’s consent is not needed.
Historical Commission staff can also nominate for designation. “Due to staffing and budget constraints, the commission itself has done very little in the way of nominating historic resources in the last six years,” Farnham said. “There was a time when the commission had the luxury of producing nominations on a regular basis. That has not happened in several years, except for a few occasions.”
The commission is one of the few city departments that have not suffered budget cuts over the past year. But that’s because of “a recognition on the part of the administration that the Historical Commission has been historically funded at levels lower than those of other comparable agencies in comparable cities,” Farnham said.
The commission has six full-time staffers: the director, a secretary, and four historic preservation planners. A seventh planner is funded by the Office of Housing and Community Development to conduct federal historic preservation reviews for HUD projects.
The staff size and the increasing workload sparked by historic designation reached a critical juncture in 2003, following the designation of the Old City district. Historical Commission members appointed by then-Mayor John Street decided the staff was unable to administer any additional large districts. “In the mid-1990s, the commission was reviewing about 600 building permit applications for historic sites,” Farnham explained. “By 2003, it had more than doubled, to about 1,300, and the staff size had stayed completely flat. The Historic Preservation Ordinance requires the commission to process building permit applications within a specific amount of time. That same ordinance does not provide any timeliness for designations. As the permit application review workload got larger, the commission shifted more of its staff from other efforts, including designation, to building permit applications. By 2004 to 2007, the peak of the real estate market, the commission was reviewing approximately 1,500 applications a year, with the same staff it had been reviewing 600 in 1996.”Technological and market shifts
The commission announced it would not review any new district nominations until it found a way to operate more efficiently or its budget was increased. “We made an argument fairly cogently that we needed to be better funded. I think that Mayor Nutter was convinced of that, but 16 months ago he was hit with the worst economic crisis in decades,” Farnham said. “So we pulled back from that.”
Changes in some regulations that give staff members more authority to approve building permit applications has helped increase efficiency. Changes in technology also have helped the process. Alternate materials for replacement, such as aluminum-clad windows for wood trim, are now considered in compliance with standards set by the U.S. Secretary of Interior.
“With both the slowdown in the real estate market and a series of efforts to streamline the office beginning a little over a year ago, the commission started talking again about restarting its historic designation program,” Farnham said.
Last October, the commission approved the designation of the Tudor East Falls district, with its 210 properties. In December, the stately Parkside
district, with 110 properties, was approved.Awbury Arboretum
, with just 29 properties, has been working on designation since 2006. Farnham predicts the commission will act on that nomination at its March meeting.
Many of the individual properties in Awbury are already on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, explained resident Mark Sellers, but research has shown that Awbury was “a single aesthetic whole, a single-family compound” that evolved from the 1850s to 1920s. The community has remained largely intact, but its zoning leaves open the possibility that “some developer could show up and say, ‘I’d like to put a five-story apartment building here,’” Sellers said.
“As property values decline, people let their historic properties go. They can’t afford to fix the roof, or do this and that. Something collapses and they just leave it on the ground. But when property values are climbing, you have a different sort of problem, which is that somebody says, ‘I think it would be great to put an in-ground swimming pool here,’ or some other insensitive, inappropriate piece of construction there,” Sellers said.
“The historic district will send a message that the community wants to send, which is that development is over at Awbury.”
Historic district designation also says “we value the way our neighborhood looks and we don’t want it to change,” Sellers said. Awbury has “always had a very clear identity and a strong community pride in our history.”