This essay appears as part of a Bridging Blocks event on preserving history. Bridging Blocks is a partnership between WHYY and The Free Library of Philadelphia.
Historic preservation and livable neighborhoods are mutually compatible priorities. Every time a developer buys a stretch of working-class townhouses, brings in a wrecking ball, and five or more stories of condos rise from the dust with inadequate or non-existent off-street parking, it proves that preservation and habitability go hand in hand at the hip obliterating both.
We need new homes for new neighbors, but in a way that doesn’t destroy the ones we have. Historic neighborhoods can be a valuable tool for neighborhoods that have a historic vibe and livable scale worth preserving. These districts are created at many levels, from the federal (nationally registered historic districts) down to the local level, such as the historic districts created by the city of Philadelphia.
But in Philadelphia, historic neighborhoods seem to be created with requirements that don’t suit working-class neighborhoods.
A little background on this is helpful: whether national or local, historic districts define the boundaries of the district, identifying all buildings that are historic in themselves, as well as those that “contribute” to the historic character of the district. piece. All of these properties are subject to a review of proposed renovations and repairs to ensure that they will meet the preservation standards established by the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Historic Preservation Processing.
Buildings in a historic district, which have no historic designation or “contributory” status, must still be maintained/renovated in a manner that does not detract from the character of the historic district.
Nationally registered historic neighborhoods have a flexibility that benefits a working-class neighborhood. In one national district, the requirement to meet preservation standards is only applied to developers and commercial properties. Private homes are only affected if the owner receives government funds to cover some of the additional costs of meeting preservation standards.
However, if you own a property in a historic district established by the City of Philadelphia, you are legally bound to the same standards as a developer or commercial landlord.
Consideration may be requested if a property owner maintaining or renovating in a historic area cannot afford the additional historic preservation costs. But owners must document a financial need — an “unnecessary hardship” — that meets the standards of the Philadelphia Historical Commission (PHC) rules and regulations, such as extraordinary medical or educational expenses, fixed income, or lower household income. at around $60,000 per year. year, a sum that a working-class, two-income household is likely to exceed in many Philadelphia neighborhoods.
There is also a separate ‘financial hardship’ category, but this would likely benefit developers looking to alter or demolish a building, rather than owners making repairs that impact a single historic feature, such as windows in origin or slate roofs.