Opinion: Stop Treating Philly's Historic Buildings Like a Burden

Despite the historic importance of a vast majority of the city of Philadelphia's buildings, demolitions are happening at a faster rate than ever.

2 minute read

June 3, 2021, 7:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Divine Lorraine Hotel

RJ / Flickr

"Philadelphia’s history isn’t a burden," writes Ashley Hahn in the Philadelphia Inquirer, but it's certainly being treated that way. According to Hahn, "increasing numbers of old buildings are demolished annually by city contractors and private owners, landfilling reusable materials and untold histories."

While "[m]ore than two-thirds of Philadelphia buildings were built more than 50 years ago, making them potentially eligible for local historic designation on the basis of age alone," less than 3% of the city's buildings have historic designation. That protected segment, writes Hahn, "unfortunately reflects a predominantly white version of the city’s past."

"The city’s Department of Planning and Development is attempting to correct this failure through a grant-funded pilot project to develop and test a survey identifying culturally significant places overlooked by traditional preservation." The survey "will be driven by the communities whose histories the historic register has excluded, particularly Black Philadelphia."

The project, "done right," will likely take years. "The process could help build public trust in the city’s preservation system as it becomes less exclusionary and more representative of Philadelphia’s diverse heritage," writes Hahn, "[b]ut it does nothing to keep that history standing in the meantime." Hahn recommends that the city immediately "enact a demolition review policy, at least until a citywide survey is completed." Otherwise, " the city is undercutting its well-intentioned survey before it starts." 

In other cities, permit applications to demolish buildings that meet "basic eligibility for local designation" trigger a review process. "It’s far faster to get a demolition permit than it is to designate a building as historic, which can take months. A demolition review policy would help level the playing field, instead of keeping it easy to level the city’s unprotected heritage."

Thursday, May 20, 2021 in Philadelphia Inquirer

Red on white 'Room for Rent, Inquire Inside' sign

In Most U.S. Cities, Archaic Laws Limit Roommate Living

Critics argue laws preventing unrelated adults from living in the same home fail to understand the modern American household.

May 24, 2023 - The Atlantic

Vancouver Chuck Wolfe

Ten Signs of a Resurgent Downtown

In GeekWire, Chuck Wolfe continues his exploration of a holistic and practical approach to post-pandemic urban center recovery, anchored in local context and community-driven initiatives that promote livability, safety, and sustainability.

May 24, 2023 - GeekWire

Colorful high-saturation view of downtown Houston, Texas with pink and blue dusk sky

Transforming Downtowns Into Functional Neighborhoods

Rather than ‘monofunctional’ business districts or urban playgrounds, American downtown districts could become multipurpose neighborhoods.

May 25, 2023 - Wired

Blue and white Interstate 15 North sign against backdrop of blue sky and snow-capped mountains in Utah

Utah DOT Plans to Expand Interstate Despite Local Concerns

With more evidence pointing to the futility of expanding freeways, the state could take a creative approach to improving travel times and providing additional transportation options.

59 minutes ago - The Salt Lake Tribune

Close-up of lead water pipe with mineral crusts

An Equity Approach to Lead Pipe Replacement

A former Chicago health commissioner calls on governments to prioritize the most marginalized and historically disinvested communities when distributing funding to replace lead pipes, which have taken the highest toll on the health of disadvantaged c

2 hours ago - Governing

View of wetlands in South Carolina at sunrise or sunset

Supreme Court Limits Clean Water Act’s Power

A recent ruling ‘dramatically’ restricts the law’s reach when it comes to protecting wetlands.

3 hours ago - Politico

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.