Saturday, November 23, 2013

Historical Commission: Time for a Performance Review
Philadelphia's sole surviving movie palace, The Boyd Theater, is charging headfirst at the wrecking ball. Our city's agents charged with protecting worthy landmarks treat historic status as a mere suggestion in favor of flashy, disposable design. Developers write their own hardship causes with no input from challenging independent audits.

So how is Spring Garden's Church of the Assumption still standing? It's baffling, a little bit sad, and its recently revoked demolition permit somewhat bittersweet.

The church's historic status is undeniable with or without a formal designation. The Roman Catholic Saint, Katherine Drexel was baptized there. In a state of disrepair, architect Patrick Charles Keely's unique temple shines on Spring Garden's otherwise boring streetscape.

Although a Commonwealth Court judge declared the demolition permit provided by the Historical Commission invalid, the judgment does little to save the church.

Developer John Wei will need to apply for a hardship waiver and prove restoring the landmark is cost prohibitive to obtain a demolition permit.

But he did that once before. Siloam, its previous owner, did it as well. Nothing in the court's judgment stops the Historical Commission from granting another permit, it only suggests that the previous permit was poorly written.

If iPic's Hamid Hashemi can prove that redeveloping the fully functional Boyd Theater as a theater is cost prohibitive, there's nothing standing in the Commission's way of declaring a crumbling church in an iffy part of town a lost cause.

Of course it's too easy to paint developers as Monopoly champions dragging around large bags stamped with dollar signs because that's exactly what they are. They build us theaters and apartment buildings and are largely responsible for our amazing skyline. Developers are the reason we have landmarks like The Boyd to fight over.

The problem is much larger than individual examples of developers paving over historic sites for parking lots. At the source is a broader scope responsible for every loss, our city's reluctance to save sites the city itself once deemed historic.

But can we? It's hard to watch Philadelphia auctioning off its schools and then ask the city to help save a theater or a church. But the city does it all the time.

We funnel money into private projects because they stand to profit the city and create jobs. Unfortunately the city doesn't hold its historic sites in the same regard, or perhaps our politicians just haven't though about it.

This city has spared no pork when it comes to political photo ops. We've spent millions on design studies for the Delaware Waterfront, Parkway improvements, and Dilworth Plaza. When it comes to intervening in history, the Historical Commission leaves crumbling sites exclusively to their own devices and at the mercy of their owners.

Philadelphia is a global tourist attraction, an attraction rooted in history. If any politicos should understand the significance behind landmarks like The Boyd or the Church of the Assumption it would be ours'. But they don't get it, routinely siding with developers at the eleventh hour.

The reason sites are declared historic is multifaceted. Most visibly, the declaration helps dictate a level of restoration, but only if its owner chooses to or can afford to preserve the site.

Beyond that, and where the city falls short, historic designation indicates that preservation may pose a challenge. Old buildings are old, they're hard to work with, and like the Church of the Assumption, many have outlived their architectural purpose.

This is exactly why historic status is important. It's ironic that the Historical Commission grants economic hardship exemptions with such regularity when the historic status in itself means that redevelopment will almost always be economically difficult.
This is where the city's involvement, and yes, even tax dollars, is most crucial. But it's also where the city's involvement is most absent.

If the city can grant developers tax breaks and subsidies to develop hotels and apartments, where are the incentives that protect our landmarks?

The Historical Commission is lip service. Worse than an ineffectual government agency, it hinders the sites it was designed to protect. Countless private historical organizations like the Greater Preservation Alliance of Philadelphia, often confused with the Commission itself, are forced to challenge the Commission's decisions.

That should never happen.

The Commission needs to aid every site it declares historic. While that certainly means it needs to be more thorough when it comes to granting historic status, some sites will be lost. But if the Commission is going to continue to grant hardship exemptions at every site it deems historically significant, historic status and the Commission mean absolutely nothing. 

How many of the Commission's historic sites have actually been saved? How many stand vacant? How many are awaiting a hardship waiver? How many have been demolished? And demolished for what?

The Commission exists to preserve Philadelphia's history. Maybe it's time to review their work.

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