How to save your favorite Philly buildings from development

The former Tacony Post Office, for example — which right now is the Art Deco home of a computer services shop.

The former Tacony Post Office, now a computer services shop

The former Tacony Post Office, now a computer services shop

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Updated Oct. 9

When it comes to historical sites in Philadelphia, Alex Balloon knows the former Tacony Post Office building is far from the most illustrious.

“This building is not Independence Hall, or some building with a huge long history,” said Balloon, director of the Tacony CDC. “It’s more of a silent supporting actress.”

But that doesn’t mean the Torresdale Avenue building isn’t important — especially to the long-time neighbors who’ve seen it all their lives. As one of the few Art Deco-style buildings in the community, Balloon feels that it rises to the level of iconic.

The building no longer functions as a post office. Instead, it’s occupied by a computer services shop. When Ballon heard that firm was planning to relocate, he knew the building might be vulnerable to major changes — or worse, demolition.

That’s why he’s working to save it…before a threat rears its head.

In conjunction with the Tacony Historical Society, Balloon nominated the former post office to be listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. If the building is accepted, that means the city recognizes it as an important aspect of the city’s history — and there will be special rules in place to preserve it, regulating all future changes.

“When you look at that building, it’s kind of a very distinct building in the context of Tacony architecture,” Balloon said. “We’re protecting it from becoming a parking lot.”

The Historic Register process takes some legwork, but it’s fully accessible to anyone who lives in Philadelphia. And though it’s not always successful, it’s much more likely to work if the process is started early — not when a developer already has designs on a site, but before that possibility surfaces.

If you’ve got a local building that’s important to you, you can apply to keep it safe. Here’s how.

Step 1: The nomination

Anyone can nominate any existing building, structure, site, object or district to be listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

Like most things in city government, the process begins with you filling out a form.

The whole effort will take some work. In addition to the completed form, it helps to include as much biographical information about the site as you can, which could require research into its history. You’ve also got to include photographs and write two essays — one that describes the physical appearance of the property, and one that demonstrates the significance of the property.

The most important part: that second essay has to demonstrate exactly how the site you’re nominating meets the at least one or two of the Philadelphia Register criteria.

(If you’re nominating a district, you need to describe literally every property in the district and create a map. Good luck.)

Hot tip: your Free Library card can be your “secret weapon,” said Balloon. That’s where he found old newspaper articles containing most of the necessary historic info.

“With the digital sources, you can put together an interesting case,” he said.

The Historical Commission criteria (in their own words)

  1. Has significant character, interest or value as part of the development, heritage or cultural characteristics of the City, Commonwealth or Nation or is associated with the life of a person significant in the past; or
  2. Is associated with an event of importance to the history of the City, Commonwealth or Nation; or
  3. Reflects the environment in an era characterized by a distinctive architectural style; or
  4. Embodies distinguishing characteristics of an architectural style or engineering specimen; or
  5. Is the work of a designer, architect, landscape architect or designer, or engineer whose work has significantly influenced the historical, architectural, economic, social, or cultural development of the City, Commonwealth or Nation; or
  6. Contains elements of design, detail, materials or craftsmanship which represent a significant innovation; or
  7. Is part of or related to a square, park or other distinctive area which should be preserved according to an historic, cultural or architectural motif; or
  8. Owing to its unique location or singular physical characteristic, represents an established and familiar visual feature of the neighborhood, community or City; or
  9. Has yielded, or may be likely to yield, information important in pre-history or history; or
  10. Exemplifies the cultural, political, economic, social or historical heritage of the community.

Step 2: The one-on-one review

After you nominate a property, you’ll begin some one-on-one communication with the Historical Commission. Theoretically, members will review your application and work with you to make it stronger. You’ll be matched up with at least one staffer, who will help you edit your nomination paperwork to make it as convincing as possible.

They’ll also notify the owner that the property has been nominated — as required by the Historic Preservation Ordinance.

Step 3: The committee recommendation

If you get through the review process, your nomination will move on to the Committee on Historic Designation —  a group within the commission that advises on all decisions. They’ll hold a public meeting to consider your nomination, and then will pass along their recommendation to the full commission.

Right now, Balloon is waiting patiently at this step. The committee is set to make a recommendation on the former Tacony Post Office on Oct. 17.

Step 4: The decision

After the committee recommends a site, the Historical Commission will review the nomination at its next meeting. Those are held every second Friday of the month at the One Parkway Building (1515 Arch Street, room 18-029).

This is your only real chance to convince the full commission in person — during the meeting, they allow public testimony.

The public hearing is where things have the potential to get fraught if there are already competing interests for the site. Developers or other community members may testify and present evidence to counter your nomination, or try to show it’s not in the neighborhood’s best interest.

After all that, commission members will vote and decide whether to list the property on the Historic Register.

Balloon hasn’t yet gotten an official decision on his nomination. But so far, he said the process has been pretty quick and easy. He started the nomination four months ago, and he estimates he’s dedicated 30 hours to drafting the final application.

“It’s not as intimidating as people might think,” Balloon said. “We need…people to step up for the buildings that matter to them.”

“We’re seeing more development pressure, and we’re not really sure what’s going to happen,” he added. “We have our radar up for buildings that might be in danger in the future.”

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