They squeezed in, 28 of the 29 members of Mayor Jim Kenney’s Historic Preservation Task Force, around a conference table on the 18th floor of 1515 Arch Street. It’s the same table where historic nominations and demolition cases are debated, sometimes by the same cast of characters. But this meeting would be different.
Last Thursday the task force kicked off its 18-month-long deep dive into the state and future of historic preservation in Philadelphia. But before diving headlong into those murky waters, the task force dipped their toes in the shallow end, talking through what exactly it’s been tasked with doing, and the logistics of the next 18 months, before using its imagination to forecast how preservation can help the city become its best self.
When Mayor Kenney announced the task force in April, he charged it with assessing the status quo of preservation in the city, making recommendations for how to strengthen it, and finding ways for preservation and growth to work as partners instead of adversaries. On the last point, the same could be said of the task force’s members, who come to the table with a broad spectrum of preservation perspectives not always accustomed to working together.
Task force members include representatives from government agencies, advocacy groups, neighborhood organizations, the development community, design firms, and academic institutions. Their very willingness to participate in the task force means they have at least one thing in common or, as task force chairman Harris Steinberg said, they are all playing preservation hokey pokey – everyone has “one foot in”.
Anne Fadullon, the city’s director of planning and development, thanked the volunteer members for giving their time to the cause, and laid out the stakes.
The city’s development climate is robust, which “puts a different pressure on historic structures and other historic fabric in our city,” she said. “The charge really is how to really keep growth going… but also maintain what makes Philadelphia uniquely Philadelphia, which is a big attribute to why we are actually growing.”
The task force will focus its work on four major areas, around which subcommittees will be organized: surveying the city’s historic resources, preservation incentives, regulation and legislative tools, and public education/engagement. The subcommittees will meet independently and report back to the rest of the task force at its meetings. Though it was not mentioned during Thursday’s public meeting, Department of Planning and Development spokesman Paul Chrystie confirmed via email that subcommittee meetings would be closed. “In order to ensure a frank and open discussion among committee members the meetings will not be open to the public.” Subcommittee reports will be made available on the Historical Commission website. Subcommittee assignments will be made over the next month.
Steinberg and Karen Black, the consultant hired to manage the project, explained that the task force’s working meetings would alternate between Center City and neighborhood locations throughout the city. The next meeting will be at 8:30 a.m. on September 14 in Center City. “Listening” sessions geared at soliciting public input will start in September as well.
To prompt task force members in discussion about the work ahead, Steinberg presented several overarching questions that came up in conversations with individual task force members. How should the city develop an inventory of its historic resources and prioritize these for preservation? What incentives would be the best fit for Philadelphia homeowners and developers? How should “preservation” be defined and just how inclusive should that definition be? How does preservation work with planning and zoning (or not)? Should there be changes to the city’s preservation law? What about the Historical Commission’s budget and staffing levels? And finally, the biggest question of all: How will the task force come to a set of actionable recommendations at the end of 18 months?
The National Trust for Historic Preservation, the nation’s biggest preservation nonprofit organization, will serve as technical adviser to the task force. Seri Worden, a senior field officer for the National Trust who is part of the task force, said the organization became involved at the request of Fadullon.
“Late last year we received this amazing letter from her laying out the urgency and need to improve and strengthen the city’s preservation apparatus, inviting the Trust to assist with best practices in preservation, advocating for more compelling building reuse incentives and educating Philadelphians on the value of preservation.” Worden said.
The National Trust launched what it calls a “National Treasure” advocacy campaign for Philadelphia’s historic neighborhoods back in June, and Worden said Philadelphia would be one of the organization’s “top national priorities.”
“Older and historic buildings play an outsize role in generating vibrant, inclusive, diverse, and resilient cities. We will be working with our experts here in Philadelphia and from around the country to share the smartest and most forward-thinking approaches to historic preservation in the 21st century. We’re no longer the paint police,” Worden said. The Trust team will include preservation lawyers, policy experts, applied researchers and specialists in real estate and redevelopment.
“Our aim is to remove barriers to reusing older and historic buildings, add incentives for protecting and utilizing them, and importantly to help educate Philadelphians on the benefits of saving old places.”
The task force’s first assignment was a visioning exercise. Steinberg began the discussion by asking how task force members envisioned Philadelphia in 2030 and how strengthened historic preservation could help achieve this future.
Members foresaw a citywide survey of historic resources to guide preservation priorities and target development. They hoped to see great new buildings, even better than the old. They hoped for ways to encourage reuse and contextual design, for different standards and regulations that would help achieve a broader spectrum of preservation-minded outcomes. They saw a city where preservation was the norm, not the exception.
But they also considered aloud thorny questions without easy answers. How can change be welcomed and better managed in a heritage city amid a development boom? They wondered about how preservation might become more inclusive, diverse, and flexible.
Task force co-chair, preservation architect Dominique Hawkins, called attention to the differences between “capital-P Preservation” done by consultants or historians and lowercase-p preservation projects and priorities defined neighborhood residents and cultural communities.
“The problem with Preservation with a capital P is we don’t ask, we don’t slow down, we don’t listen,” Hawkins said. The time has come to value the expertise of neighborhood residents in preservation processes, she argued. “We have to ask today what’s important to save for tomorrow.”
Laura Spina of the Planning Commission said neighborhood preservation comes up frequently during district planning. She hoped that the task force could help identify ways to help average homeowners do preservation work “even if it’s not with a capital P”.
Safeguarding the “sense of place” that makes Philadelphia unique was also top of mind for many members, from land use attorney Matt McClure to advocates Oscar Biesert and Patrick Grossi.
“There’s a sense of place as it applies to the city as a whole, but I think we need the plural of that – we need senses of places,” said University of Pennsylvania’s university architect David Hollenberg. “Tacony… is very different than Rittenhouse. I’m glad we have both of those things. We should have supple enough regulatory and interpretive mechanisms to understand those differences and not try to iron them out.”
Randy Mason, chair of PennDesign’s graduate program in historic preservation, hoped for a new level of trust among the preservation community writ large. What if everyone involved could to cultivate more positive connections, creating a more collaborative and confident approach to problem solving and decision making?
Justino Navarro, a community representative for Spring Garden, offered a simple metric for assessing the task force’s efficacy, a single question many will likely use to measure success or failure. “In 2030, what percent of 2017 Philadelphia are we going to still have intact?”
NOTE: Ashley Hahn worked for PlanPhilly when it was a part of PennPraxis and run by Harris Steinberg. She is also an alumna (2008) of the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation and the Department of City and Regional Planning at PennDesign, where she was a student of Randy Mason, David Hollenberg, and Harris Steinberg. It’s a small city sometimes.