Philly to boost historic preservation with comprehensive survey and developer incentives

There’s still no plans to hire a public archaeologist.

All that's left of the Royal Theater is its old facade.

All that's left of the Royal Theater is its old facade.

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
michaelawinberg-2020-2

Updated 12:20 p.m.

Hailing the release of final recommendations from his Historic Preservation Task Force, Mayor Jim Kenney announced Thursday morning new steps to better protect Philly’s celebrated historic legacy.

Doug Mooney, a task force member and president of the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum, expects the changes will make a positive impact.

“Right now the city offers zero incentives for historic preservation,” Mooney said. “That’s a little ridiculous to me.”

Foremost among the new ideas is a plan to survey the entire city and create a documented index of its historic resources. When developers apply for demolition permits for properties on this list, the request will automatically get flagged and the Department of Licenses and Investigations will be alerted. The survey will be a one-time thing, officials said, so they won’t continue to add properties after it’s complete.

A two-tiered register and incentives for developers

In total, the task force recommended eight general steps the city could take — including hiring a public archaeologist, which the city has is not yet committing to. Other major actions Kenney will advance include:

  • Dividing historic designation into two tiers, ideally lowering the barrier for a property to get listed on the official register
  • Forming a new Historic Preservation Policy Team made up of reps from different city departments

Additionally, Councilman Mark Squilla, whose district encompasses Old City, said he’ll work to implement incentives for developers.

These would not be direct cash bonuses, the councilman clarified, but Mooney said he still considers them a huge step forward. The measures will encourage developers to repurpose historic properties — instead of tearing them down — by reducing parking requirements and increasing by-right use opportunities for buildings that were formerly churches and schools. For example, Squilla said, St. Laurentius in Fishtown, where a plan to turn the former Catholic parish into apartments caused much debate among neighbors.

“These actions will enable Philadelphia to continue its job and population growth,” Kenney said, “while protecting what makes people want to live and work here in the first place.”

The historical marker for Philly at City Halll

The historical marker for Philly at City Halll

Zari Tarazona / Billy Penn

The current system? It only works sometimes

Sometimes, Philly’s system to preserve historic artifacts does work. That’s evident in the fact that structures like the Met Philly and the Divine Lorraine are still standing — repurposed now into modern uses.

Other times, however, prominent buildings are overlooked until it’s too late, after they’ve ended up in a state of permanent disrepair or been torn down for new development. Examples include the actively-crumbling Underground Railroad stop on Mount Vernon near 16th Street, and the city’s network of historic black burial grounds that have been uprooted via new development projects.

These cases are why Kenney established his task force in the first place, to streamline the preservation process and prevent more properties from slipping through the cracks.

Mooney, the archaeologist, is also optimistic — albeit cautiously — for the city to start documenting its historic resources. His trepidation can be attributed to the fact that he works with underground artifacts, which he said are often excluded from surveys like this.

Kenney didn’t specify whether the audit would include relics of the subterranean variety. An early release also elided mention of hiring a public archaeologist, which Mooney had eagerly recommended as a member of the task force.

Instead, the mayor offered an ambiguous commitment to “better honor the city’s underground artifacts.”

“We’ve all called for the city to hire an archaeologist, and they just steadfastly refuse to do that,” Mooney added. “There’s been nobody looking for the last 30 years. We don’t even know what we’ve lost, because nobody’s been bothering to look.”

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