Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Lost in the Squabble

Demanding too much or too little, preservationists have managed to leave at least two historic properties behind in the squabble. Years ago, developer John J. Turchi purchased former Mayor Richardson Dilworth's Washington Square mansion. Intending on restoring the property and converting it into his private residence, that wasn't good enough for the Historical Commission. Denied his attempt to reside on Washington Square, the Historical Commission demanded that it serve the neighborhood as nothing less noble than a museum.

Well nothing that remains of Dilworth House today is noble. Turchi did what developers do best, he went through the back door and filed an application to build a 20 story condo tower on the site of the house, which would have completely demolished Mayor Dilworth's presence in the neighborhood he fought to transform.

Neighborhood organizations did what they do best and tied Turchi up in hearings for years, demanding rendering after rendering, some so absurd that the facade of Dilworth's mansion was sitting in the lobby of the high rise.

Is this the compromise the Historical Commission wanted when they denied Turchi's use of the house as a private residence? Instead of a restored Colonial reproduction gracing Washington Square, Dilworth House, which was once a message to this former slum, now stands as a vacant testament to what the great mayor fought, not what he accomplished.

At the opposite end of well intended meddling, the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia and the Callowhill Neighborhood Association had their say yesterday in one of the hearings to decide the fate of Spring Garden's Church of the Assumption. The non-profit group, Siloam, was granted the authority by the Historical Commission to demolish the church due to economic hardships. After hearing of the demolition's approval, a board member of the Callowhill Neighborhood Association quickly submitted the church for historic certification.

Amy Hooper, President of the Callowhill Neighborhood Association claims the organization was "caught off guard" by the demolition. Adding "the last thing (needed) is another parking lot". Truer words can't be spoken of Callowhill and Spring Garden, but in a neighborhood with sparse examples of historic properties, how is it that the status of this iconic building ever managed to fly below the radar? Perhaps Spring Garden's most prominent contribution to the skyline, not one voice at the Callowhill Neighborhood Association spoke out on behalf of this historic property until it was under the wrecking ball.

The property has long sat on numerous endangered lists, even catching the attention of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Why then, was it not submitted for historic certification until after it was approved for demolition?

Additionally, Hooper noted that the building stands at the "gateway" to the Reading Viaduct which the group wants to convert into a park. But like their absent responsibility for the Church of the Assumption, the neighborhood sits on acres of potential community gardens neglected as urban landfills, and with numerous surface lots and barren concrete walls left from demolition, Callowhill does not have one mural in a city of more than 2000.

It's hard to sympathize with an organization that waited until the 11th hour to wrangle a bevy of witnesses, particularly when they clearly have a habit of neglecting their own potential.

Siloam isn't devoid of their own suspicions. Prominent developers like Alex Generalis have stepped forward to cite how little they knew of the organization's attempt to sell the property in lieu of demolition. Still, in the years that the Church of the Assumption sat vacant no one from the Callowhill Neighborhood Association pointed out the site's deteriorating state of disrepair.

In a neighborhood with no shortage of available land in the way of surface lots and vacant meadows, the last thing that comes to mind when a developer sees a vacant church is going to be "adaptive reuse". This is where neighborhood organizations can shine, by proactively addressing a potential loss in their historic portfolio. Instead, the Callowhill Neighborhood Association is best known for deterring the redevelopment of several surface lots and the fiercely debated reuse of the Reading Viaduct. Meanwhile, many Callowhill residents live in gated fortresses isolating their contribution to the city, and even their own sidewalks.

Sadly, Assistant City Solicitor Leonard Reuter may have made the most apt statement during yesterday's hearing, "Sometimes you have to let it go." And this fact isn't solely due to Siloam's sloppy and inexperienced respect for their property. The loss of the Church of the Assumption, an architecturally and historically significant site, is largely due to those who self-assign themselves watchdogs for our neighborhoods' best interests, and then ignore our neighborhoods' most valuable assets.

Meanwhile, like children caught up in a divorce and awaiting a custody decision, Dilworth House and the Church of the Assumption stand alone, both parents caught up in the squabble, neglecting what's truly at risk because of their own stubborn pride.

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