The city of Philadelphia is striding briskly into the third decade of the new millennium, buoyed by a renewed appreciation for the benefits and quality of life that comes from living in a city. With remote work emerging as a new standard in many offices, Philadelphia’s walkability, historic character, culture and affordability have made it a desirable alternative to other east coast cities.
Yet it is all of the things that residents have long loved and appreciated about Philadelphia that feel threatened by this growth. Modest brick row houses are being replaced by post-modern mansions towering above their neighbors. Beloved neighborhood small businesses now compete against national chains attracted by the juiced-up buying power of monied residents. Historic buildings are constantly under threat of redevelopment demolition.
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In short, city leaders have the opposite problem on their hands than they did in the last millennium. For almost half a century, our government leaders and operating departments became experts in the management of decline. From 1955 to 2000, vacant properties, crumbling factories and abandoned vehicles were the rusted carrion of a city bleeding jobs and population. But now it is the management of modest growth that is one of our city’s biggest challenges, and we are struggling to rise to the occasion.
In a city that removes public trash cans to solve the problem of having to empty them, we have to change how we look at growth and figure out how to positively manage it. “No growth, no problems” cannot be the answer. As the city with both the second highest tax burden and highest poverty rate in the country, growth is incredibly important to addressing the numerous challenges facing our residents. We cannot afford to take it for granted and must learn to manage it to ensure it doesn’t happen at the expense of our identity or our most vulnerable residents.
Three areas where Philly needs to do better to manage growth:
Protecting Our History
Only through preserving Philadelphia’s past can we guarantee its future. As the first World Heritage City in the United States, Philadelphia’s history is critical to both our identity and our economy. Yet despite the importance of this issue, we are failing to adequately protect our cityscape from the frenzied real estate market that has wrecking balls swinging through treasured structures.
Despite being home to America’s most historic square mile, Philadelphia falls short at historic preservation when compared to its peer cities. As noted by Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia Executive Director Paul Steinke, “Fewer than 3 percent of all the city’s buildings are listed on the Philadelphia Register, which is half the national average.” In order to be placed on the Register, a building must be nominated for recognition and be approved by the Historical Commission.
This is a burdensome process, which can take months to resolve. Meanwhile, demolition permit applications are required to be reviewed within 20 business days of processing. As noted by Curbed Philly, “Even organizations like the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia only have the resources to nominate between five to 10 buildings a year.”
In a city with hundreds, if not thousands, of potentially historically significant structures, the pace of the current system is simply unacceptable. Moreover, the buildings that do make it through the nomination process onto the registry “overwhelmingly spotlight white history.”
As the city with both the second highest tax burden and highest poverty rate in the country, growth is incredibly important to addressing the numerous challenges facing our residents
In a baffling decision, for example, the Historical Commission, ignoring the unanimous recommendation of its Committee on Historic Designation, rejected the nomination of the Henry Minton House on 12th Street. Minton was a “celebrated restaurateur…whose guests included John Brown, Frederick Douglass and William Still, the “Father of the Underground Railroad.” Advocate Faye Anderson observed, “If preserving Black history mattered at the Historical Commission, the Henry Minton House would have been protected.”
The hottest housing market in history is fueling a demolition craze. It’s time the City gets serious about staunching the destruction of historically or architecturally significant structures. First, the City should heed historic preservation writer Ashley Hahn’s call for an automatic demolition review process to allow the Historical Commission an opportunity to review the significance of a building before a permit is issued:
Cities like Chicago, Phoenix, St. Louis, and Boston all have different demolition reviews, tailored to meet local needs. They share a short time frame for permit review, such as 45 days, that applies to buildings in areas prioritized for preservation or those that meet basic eligibility for local designation, like being more than 50 years old. Applying for a permit to demolish buildings that meet these criteria triggers a review of their significance by city preservation staff before a demolition permit is issued. By establishing baseline review criteria and keeping the review period tight, building owners and developers know what to expect and reuse options may be encouraged.
As the city embarks on a two-year community survey aimed at identifying and preserving Black history, let’s make sure that those buildings are still standing by the time the survey is complete.
The City also needs to significantly expand the budget of the Historical Commission to make sure they have adequate staffing levels and resources to quickly identify and protect important buildings. Every dollar sent to the Historical Commission is an investment in our city’s history—one that will be repaid multiple times over. Our growth doesn’t have to be at a loss of our identity.
Planning for Parking
Go to any neighborhood meeting about a new development and you will see all of the oxygen in the air consumed by the topic of parking. Like counting the rings on a tree to find out its age, you can tell how long someone has lived in a neighborhood based on how close to their house they used to find parking. Philadelphians are addicted to cheap, on-street parking and the consequences of that addiction are harming our ability to build more affordable and higher density projects.
The City, admittedly, does not keep any official count of parking spaces. Nor does there appear to be any strategy for managing on-street parking beyond the block by block residential permit process. The $35 residential parking permit has not been raised since 1992; residential zone boundaries are arbitrary and hours inconsistent.
Given the outsized role that parking plays in the development process, it is unfathomable that the city doesn’t have a strategic plan for managing one of the biggest pieces of its real estate portfolio. The City and Philadelphia Parking Authority should work together to review the residential parking system, and ensure that it is designed thoughtfully, priced appropriately and meets the needs of a growing city.
Philadelphia’s relative affordability to other big cities is now proving to be one of our most glaring vulnerabilities, with speculators snapping up investment properties. Longtime residents who have been the lifeblood of our many neighborhoods fear displacement and the loss of their neighborhood character.
New development is seen as a zero-sum game pitting developers against neighbors. The ground is shifting from under people’s feet (sometimes literally) and they are looking to our city leaders for a sense of stability. The City has done some important work to mitigate rising housing values, such as the homestead exemption and LOOP, but these benefits only apply to homeowners, and do not afford protection to renters.
In a city that removes public trash cans to solve the problem of having to empty them, we have to change how we look at growth and figure out how to positively manage it. “No growth, no problems” cannot be the answer.
Many large projects cannot go through the zoning process without first meeting with neighborhood groups, as required by the Zoning Code. It is at these meetings that the developer and neighborhood representatives will negotiate important aspects of the project, like height, density and affordability.
However, relying on community organizations to negotiate project specifications is problematic for a number of reasons.
First, allowing community groups to set the ground rules for development can lead to exclusionary outcomes. Late last year, the Society Hill neighborhood advocated for and received a change to the Zoning Code that would cap the height of certain blocks, increase parking requirements and eliminate density bonuses. Mayor Kenney unsuccessfully vetoed the bill, saying that “restricting overall development in Society Hill…will limit the supply of units necessary to meet housing demand.” Granting neighbors the right to pull up the ladder behind them to new residents only exacerbates affordability problems and pushes housing demand into other neighborhoods.
Second, studies have shown that those attending community meetings are not necessarily representative of the community. As summarized by Strong Towns, “Public input is valuable. However, conventional mechanisms of public input may provide a distorted picture of what those with a real stake in a place actually believe or want.” In other words, community meetings do not accurately capture neighborhood sentiment about a development project, as Strong Towns noted:
There is also the simple fact that opponents of a development proposal are likely to feel stronger in their opposition than supporters do in their support…And many of the beneficiaries of development are hypothetical: those who might live in an apartment building if it is built, for example, have no skin in the game at the point at which the apartment proposal faces a yes or no vote. Opponents thus have a far greater incentive to show up and speak out against it. Those who fight against new housing will, by this logic, be overrepresented at meetings.
Lastly, these community negotiations don’t necessarily reflect the goals of the City’s Comprehensive Plan. The Comprehensive Plan sets forth a vision for the future of the city, covering housing, employment, transportation, parks and other aspects of the physical environment. Unfortunately, the Planning Commission’s recommendations are only that —a recommendation that can be ignored by the public and politicians alike. If the City were truly committed to strategic growth—a strengthened and empowered Planning Commission would be an important step in the right direction.
Lauren Vidas is an election law attorney and government relations professional in Philadelphia where she has spent over a decade working in and around city government. Follow her on Twitter or sign-up for her newsletter to stay on top of the workings of City Hall.Photo by Heidi Kaden on Unsplash