January 15, 2020

Historic Preservation in Philadelphia: New Tools for an Old City

In November 2019, Philadelphia Mayor James Kenney signed into law three new bills that remove barriers and incentivize historic preservation in one of our nation’s most historic cities. These bills will allow for a more flexible and supportive regulatory environment for the protection of historic buildings and neighborhoods by reducing parking requirements, allowing for accessory dwelling units, and providing other uses for “special purpose” buildings. Philadelphia City Council also approved a regulatory change to Neighborhood Conservation Districts in December, which introduces a new level of demolition control within neighborhood-specific zoning overlays. A Preservation Trust Fund, similar to the city’s existing Housing Trust Fund, is also under consideration and likely to be introduced in early 2020.

These new tools are a direct result of Philadelphia Mayor James Kenney’s Historic Preservation Task Force, established in June 2017 to overhaul existing preservation policies. The need for this high-profile effort to improve preservation arose out of increasingly intense development pressure and widespread demolition in Philadelphia. In fact, demolitions hit a record high in 2018.

With the new tools that recently passed in Philadelphia, large buildings such as this one in the Callowhill neighborhood will be easier to re-purpose. | Credit: Neal Santos, National Trust for Historic Preservation

To address these ongoing challenges, Mayor Kenney invited the National Trust for Historic Preservation to support the City as Technical Advisor to the Task Force. In this role, the National Trust tapped into their decades of experience to provide recommendations on how the City could better protect its wealth of historic neighborhoods and incentivize building reuse and rehabilitation. A representative of the National Trust sat on the Task Force, along with staff from the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, developers, attorneys, city council members, business owners and homeowners, to ensure all voices and points of view were represented.

In neighborhoods in the past, there have been few tools or incentives available in Philadelphia to owners, developers, city leaders, and advocates encouraging and supporting rehabilitation and reuse of these recognized buildings. This has led to some residents and elected officials keeping an arm’s length away from historic district designation, perceiving it as burdensome with little financial or regulatory support. However, there remain passionate independent advocates and established preservation groups like the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia that are equally appalled by the pace of change and demolition of older and historic buildings throughout the city.

The four recent bills include four new tools for building stronger communities in Philadelphia. They seek to not only manage financial and logistical hurdles to protecting historic buildings, but also provide support to developers and homeowners through reduced parking requirements, allowing for accessory dwelling units, use zoning relief, and instituting a demo review in Neighborhood Conservation Overlay Districts.

Reduced Parking Requirements

Despite the strong demand for on-and off-street parking in Philadelphia, car use and ownership are nonetheless being reconsidered here. Bike commuting and bicycle infrastructure have both increased in Philly; some residents who are fortunate enough to live close to their place of employment are opting not to own a vehicle at all; and a growing tide of local urbanists have questioned the overreliance on automobiles in a city that is as walkable and navigable as any in the U.S. But with respect to historic preservation and the reuse of historic resources, there is an even more obvious reason to question the need for parking: it is expensive and unwieldy.

Parking is often a premium in many of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods including where the Lural Lee Blevins Veterans Center is located. The new parking relief bill will not excessively burden the demand for parking across the city, but will incentivize investment in historic properties primed for maintenance or reuse. | Courtesy Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia

Bill No. 190611 aims to limit this financial and logistical hurdle wherever possible, further incentivizing investment in historic properties across the city. Now, when a new use is being sought for a historic property that would otherwise trigger new parking requirements, those requirements will be waived. If an addition or new structure is also being added to the historic property or constructed on the same parcel, those parking requirements would be reduced by half. This is a sensible proposal that will avoid the need for a zoning variance, eliminate or reduce the costs of providing parking within or nearby a historic property, and allow owners and developers to devote expenses on rehabilitating or restoring the property to the highest standards. The bill may also incentivize owners to have their properties listed on the Philadelphia Register to secure this relief from parking requirements.

Not surprisingly, there was some initial pushback to this idea, given the sensitive nature of parking in the city. In Philadelphia, “parking” is a four-letter word. The perception of ample parking can make or break a new development proposal, and on any given night a local civic association’s Zoning Committee might be considering a new project and weighing whether its parking accommodations are adequate to solicit their support. The bill, however, will only apply to a small universe of properties. They must be listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places (currently sitting at little more than 2 percent of the city’s building stock); and they must be requesting a use change that would trigger the parking requirements in the first place. The bill will not excessively burden the demand for parking across the city and will further incentivize investment in historic properties primed for renewed maintenance or reuse.

Accessory Dwelling Units

Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) are an increasingly popular method of addressing housing supply without radically altering the fabric or scale of historic neighborhoods. They have arguably gained the most traction in California and the Pacific Northwest, but multiple cities have allowed them within their local building codes in recent years. Bill No. 190612 allows ADUs within the envelope of existing single-family houses and/or outbuildings already extant on larger single-family lots (such as a garage or carriage house).

ADUs will now be possible within the envelope of existing single-family houses and/or outbuildings on larger single-family lots (such as a garage or carriage house). Pictured homes in the Girard Estates neighborhood of Philadelphia. | Credit: Neal Santos, National Trust for Historic Preservation

As with the parking bill, this provision is only extended to properties listed on the Philadelphia Register. ADUs were in fact already defined in Philadelphia’s Zoning Code, but it was never determined where they could be placed into service. The bill thus represents the first official allowance of ADUs in Philadelphia, an idea that is essentially being piloted in historic districts across the city. Beyond the benefits of maintaining neighboring scale while adding modest increases in housing supply, ADUs also often provide a source of income for owners, many of whom are eager to repair or maintain their historic residence but require financial assistance to do so. It’s too soon to tell how attractive ADUs might become within Philadelphia’s historic districts, but the bill sets a significant precedent for the multiple and evolving types of living within historic neighborhoods.

Use Zoning Relief

Bill 190613 is arguably the most complicated of the four recently passed bills, but also the regulatory change that may end up having the most measurable impact. Many cities offer zoning relief to encourage investment in historic properties, and with good reason. Developers pursuing adaptive reuse projects in Philadelphia typically must seek a variance to address a property’s non-conforming use; i.e. a former textile mill intended for residential conversion is still zoned Industrial; or a vacant school building intended for a mix of offices, shops, and studios is still zoned Special Purpose-Institutional. Despite increased efforts since 2012 to re-map zoning and correct designations that fail to align with existing uses, there are still countless parcels across the city with zoning that is essentially a holdover from past planning efforts.

The zoning relief will help with redevelopment projects at buildings like the Pyramid Lofts. | Courtesy Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia

Churches are a particularly illustrative example. Numerous historic churches, many of which are nestled amid rowhouse neighborhoods, are likewise zoned for Residential Single-Family use. In the unfortunate event that a church like that is closed and deconsecrated, or the congregation opts to relocate, a developer interested in maintaining that property would need a zoning variance, most likely for residential or commercial use, or a mix of both. They may likewise become exposed to legal hurdles or face zoning challenges from immediate neighbors uneasy about an increase in density and parking. Most worrisome, many developers acquiring historic churches opt to simply demolish the historic property, perceiving the clean slate of an undeveloped lot already zoned for residential as much easier to work with and far more lucrative. Given their large lots, approximate location within residential districts, and the motivation of sellers who are often desperate to monetize what is perceived as their last tangible asset—their real estate—churches are extremely vulnerable to demolition in a volatile housing market.

Bill No. 190613 intends to obviate such hurdles and disincentivize demolition by simply making such adaptive reuse projects “by-right” (i.e. no variance needed). There are provisos, of course. As with the bills discussed above, the property must be listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places; the property must demonstrate a current or historic “special purpose” use (such as industrial, institutional, etc.); and the “special purpose” use must meet a threshold of 2500 square feet. The ultimate goal of the bill is to incentivize the adaptive reuse of Philadelphia’s many factories, mills, school, churches, and other large-scale historic properties that remain lying in wait for new modern uses. It is a zoning-specific bill but for all intents and purposes it is now the closest thing Philadelphia has to an adaptive reuse bill (in tandem with the previously discussed parking relief bill) and promises increased investment in historic properties throughout the city.

Demo Review in Neighborhood Conservation Overlay Districts

Neighborhood Conservation Overlay Districts (NCOs) were introduced to the Philadelphia Code in 2004 and were intended as a kind of “preservation lite” alternative to traditional local historic districts. They primarily regulate massing, scale, and materials of infill construction, though are also enabled to regulate alterations to existing properties. Unlike historic districts, which are administered by the Philadelphia Historical Commission, NCOs are regulated and overseen by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission.

NCOs are an effective planning tool. They help preserve the scale, materials, and streetscapes of intact neighborhoods and further help guide new in-fill development. They do not, however, regulate demolition. The preservation community has viewed this as the overlay’s largest shortcoming, and it is partly why more have not been advanced (at present there are six NCOs within Philadelphia). Bill No. 190866 puts a partial check on that limitation by requiring any demolition permit within a NCO be secured in tandem with a building permit. It is a modest but sensible tweak to the governance of NCOs.

Neighborhood Conservation Overlay Districts will now disincentivize demolition and properties within NCOs can no longer be speculatively demolished. Pictured: A home in the historic Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. | Credit: Neal Santos, National Trust for Historic Preservation.

NCOs will now disincentivize demolition when no viable building project on that site is apparent or forthcoming; and properties within NCOs can no longer be speculatively demolished and left to sit as vacant, undeveloped lots. Unlike local Historic Districts, NCOs do not have an outright prohibition on demolition, but this amendment nonetheless ushers in a sensible increase in oversight and may encourage additional neighborhoods to pursue NCO status.

It is not surprising that these bills are essentially “soft” incentives and modest tweaks, requiring minimal funding from the city. Staff at the Department of Licenses and Inspections, the Planning Commission, and the Historical Commission will all have to learn the nuances of the bills, as will advocates, developers, owners and others. The bills themselves do not require an allocation of resources, establish a tax benefit, or rely on a grant or loan program. But they are nonetheless an excellent start to the implementation process of the Historic Preservation Task Force.

The ongoing partnership between the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, and the City of Philadelphia has been transformational for one of America’s most historic cities. Anthony Mannino—a member of the Preservation Alliance’s board, a development consultant, and historic preservation advocate—recently shared that he has never felt this good about historic preservation. When the Task Force was first convened, many in Philadelphia’s preservation community expressed skepticism that it would amount to much of anything, and that yet another report, telling us what we all already knew, would sit on a shelf. Within six months of the Task Force’s issuance of its final report, four of its recommendations have been passed by Philadelphia’s City Council and are ready for implementation in 2020. In municipal politics, that’s a quick turnaround, and we’re only just getting started.

Seri Worden is a senior field director with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Patrick Grossi is Director of Advocacy with the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.

By: Seri Worden and Patrick Grossi

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