Monday, November 24, 2014

Can Preservation Be Proactive?

To look at Philadelphia from the river, we look like any other successful city. Office buildings dominate the skyline, historic steeples complement glassy towers, and from University City to Market East, the city continues to be redefined architecturally. 

But step inside and it's another story. We aren't a city that moves quickly. If New York and Chicago build like the Autobahn, Philadelphia's development climate can be summed up by the Schuylkill at 5PM any time of day.

We are a culture that caters to bureaucracy and neighborhood organizations that miss the mark, and it scars the landscape. As a city home to perhaps the nation's largest portfolio of architectural history and heritage, the fight to save our most beleaguered landmarks is often lost to decades of squabbles. What's worse, some of the most careless developers know this and use it to their advantage.

If you want to tear down a crumbling church for a parking lot or suburban strip mall, all you have to do is wait it out. No site in Center City knows this better than the historic Church of the Assumption on Spring Garden Street.

After years of on-again off-again bickering between developers, owners, the Historical Commission, and advocacy groups, a demolition permit has been issued to the building's current owner, John Wei. Considering all of the city's historical losses in the past forty or fifty years, placing a site on the city's Register of Historic Places almost seems like it ensures a building's inevitable demolition.

The current state of the church means it will almost certainly be demolished despite any appeals. It's just too costly to repair, at least in terms with what you could actually get out of such a space. Were it habitable, it would make a nice gym, theater, or nightclub. But its condition is not a technicality. It's falling apart.

The Church of the Assumption is unique. What happened to it, unfortunately is not. And I'm not just referring to the loss of a landmark. I'm talking about how it was lost. Call it what you want, but what happened to the Church of the Assumption boils down to a dysfunctional dinner table argument full of family members only tethered to each other by blood. While Grandpa was complaining about cell phones, the parents announced their divorce, and the daughter Tweeted the whole ordeal...the dinner rotted and ended up in the dog's bowl.

But this is a lesson Philadelphia's historical advocates are routinely offered but never learn. And it's going to happen again. The Spruce Parker Hotel was recently shut down after a small fire. It's not a historically designated building, nor should it be, but it's a beefy building on a prime corner. Without an eager buyer willing to upgrade the modest hotel, it will begin to deteriorate and we'll wind up with another surface parking lot in Center City.

Around the corner, the renovation of the Lincoln Apartments appears to have stalled. It may simply be that the logistics of rebuilding an aging structure from the inside out is too complex to show quick signs of progress. But it may also be that the effort has proven more complicated and costly than first thought. Old City recently learned the cost of letting a building drift into disrepair. As the Shirt Corner closed and promised a handsome 3rd and Market, it's twin burned leaving the corner with a vacant lot and a prime corner looking worse than ever.

So what's the point of this rambling rant? Well, for starters, true advocates need to be proactive, not reactive. It's understandable amongst community organizations. Members don't have time to be on top of every effort. They have jobs. But those charged with protecting history, being on top of the effort is the job. Fighting a fight at the eleventh hour rarely works, and this has been made painfully apparently time and time again. 

The Church of the Assumption will be torn down whether or not anyone wants to admit it. It's unfortunate, and I'm not being negative. I'm suggesting we looking for the next Church of the Assumption: Robinson's Department Store, The Roundhouse, The Health District Center. Start the fight before it's a fight. Proactively seek tenants not just with the means to preserve these landmarks, but with the desire for landmark properties. 

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