Saturday, April 26, 2014

A Proactive Approach to Blight and Neglect

After the collapse of the Shirt Corner and the fire that destroyed the Suit Corner, much of Old City's blighted neglect is being called into question. Of course blight is nothing new to Philadelphia, even Center City. On April 11, a glass panel fell from City Blue's façade near 11th and Chestnut, an intersection home to more than a few nearly abandoned and possibly dangerous buildings.

Many of the problems seem to stem from interagency miscommunication. L&I, the Historical Commission, and the city's 311 response service tend to address sites after the damage is done. Property owners are saddled with the responsibility of connecting the dots between agencies that don't talk to each other, while less concerned slumlords are free to sit on their properties until L&I is forced to control the damage.

Old City has become the poster child for potentially dangerous situations, possibly because this prime and expensive address is still structurally an in-progress neighborhood.

Philadelphians tend to have blinders when it comes to architectural neglect. But if you really look at Old City, you begin to wonder why it commands rents nearly as high as Rittenhouse. You'll find several pricy loft conversions sharing a blocks with even more vacant and weathered buildings. Many of those that host galleries and boutiques in their storefronts are capped with unkempt façades of broken glass, upper floors riddled with black mold and dry rot.

Bureaucracy in any city's government is expected, although perhaps in Philadelphia it is more pronounced. But that begs the question, why are we and our city's own non-profit organizations so content with hindsight?

Perhaps it's not the job of organizations like the Preservation Alliance or the Historical Society to address blight amongst our aging buildings, but when those within the historical community vocally react to demolition permits, collapses, and fires, they open themselves up to scrutiny. I have to ask, "well ,where were you?"

Cataloging historic properties on a flashy website is a great preliminary step, especially those potentially threatened. It's a marketing move that raises awareness but it doesn't actively provide anything.

Where is the arm of these organizations with an inside track to the city's bureaucracy? Where are the local lobbyists that speak City Hall's unique language?

Waiting for the city to get its act together is a futile effort. All cities deal with poor communication, bureaucracy, and a staff of administrators who know that a job done well is a job that isn't secure. That won't change.

Whether it's a small neighborhood organization vested in safety or a larger non-profit that charges itself with saving our city's historic landmarks, no one can expect to operate successfully until they work with the city, not against it. Knowing that the city won't change, at least not anytime soon, enables these groups and organizations to take a proactive approach to addressing safety concerns and vacant or underutilized historic sites.

But across the board, they're reactionary in every effort and provide an absent alternative or solution. Where are we with the Dilworth House? Society Hill's neighborhood organization successfully blocked an effort to renovate, then demolish the arguably historic building, but that success is eradicated by its complete lack of resolve. Almost ten years after their efforts began, the building is still empty.

Perhaps this isn't the mission of these groups. Perhaps neighborhood groups are only capable of addressing immediate situations. Maybe larger non-profits aren't designed to proactively address the fate of the historic sites they catalog.

But likewise, it isn't the Historical Commission's job to save them. They're in charge of reviewing construction and demolition permits. Their bottom line is how these landmarks immediately and financially benefit the city. They stamp paper. Meanwhile L&I has proven itself incapable of addressing dangerous buildings across the city at large. They can respond to one hazardous site while another collapses, surrounding them in a cloud of ineptitude while they figure out how to do their job.

We're left with no authority, public or private, truly vested in securing the safety of aging and vacant buildings or saving our blighted, historically registered landmarks. If organizations like the Preservation Alliance and the Historical Society aren't prepared to watchdog our history, something needs to emerge. Otherwise buildings will continue to fall, deliberately or not.

The region needs a proactive preservation organization, one which understands the headaches the city poses, one with an inside voice. It needs an organization connecting owners of blighted and abandoned buildings to prospective buyers interested in unique and historic properties. Until then buildings will continue to fall for parking lots, history will be lost to paperwork, and we'll all keep scratching our heads in hindsight wondering, "how did this happen?"

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