Five months from now, Philadelphia’s controversial 10-year property tax reduction will no longer apply. So are many beautiful old buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The lucrative incentive, which fueled a decade-long construction boom, is to expire at the end of the year and be replaced by a less generous version with a five-year tax break. With developers required to have an approved building permit by December 31st to qualify for the 10-year discount, conservationists fear we could see a number of demolitions as they clean their lots and prepare their projects for construction.
In the last week alone, there have been demolition reports on three notable properties: the historically designated St. Laurentius Church in Fishtown, two early 20th-century banks in Kensington, and two row houses in a beautifully preserved 19th-century block in Powelton Village. These announcements come after a season of severe destruction that left a Romanesque-style Catholic church in the Haddington neighborhood of West Philadelphia, a badly damaged but still magnificent synagogue in Strawberry Mansion, a handsome industrial building on Spring Garden Street, the historically designated home of a notable 19th century painter in Germantown; and a row of elegant 19th century townhouses on Christian Street known as Black Doctor’s Row.
As one of the oldest cities in America, Philadelphia has such an extensive collection of buildings from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries that the disappearance of a row house here or an old church there has changed the appearance of the city. Many of the demolitions, like the former Downey’s Restaurant on South Street, are simply well-finished and popular brick-walled buildings that would likely not receive historic status.
But after more than a decade of intense development, it feels like the losses are adding up. In streets where Philadelphia’s sturdy brick houses were once ubiquitous – like Ridge Avenue in Francisville or Front Street in Fishtown – flat metal plates are becoming the dominant vernacular. Demolition targets include buildings that have been designated more and more, which are supposed to be protected by the Historical Commission, but are blatantly neglected by owners who are not afraid of official sanctions. City Hall is setting the tone with its willingness to demolish its major modern designs such as the Carousel House in Fairmount Park and the Pavilion in Columbus Square.
The 10 year tax exemption cannot be blamed entirely for the demolitions. Housing demand has been consistently strong for more than a decade, even during the worst of the pandemic. Interest rates remain low and many buyers prefer new homes to older ones. But “the city’s development policy is about to be demolished and replaced,” says Paul Steinke, head of the Preservation Alliance. All of this happens in a city with an abundance of properties that could be restored. “
The upcoming changes to the tax relief are intended to partially compensate for this imbalance. While new buildings are eligible for tax breaks for five years, renovated properties will be tax-free for ten years after the new law comes into force in January. This incentive is one of the few concrete measures that emerged from Mayor Jim Kenney’s Monument Preservation Task Force. A variety of other zone bonuses that allow developers to erect taller buildings could still be the reason for the demolition.
Although each of these bonuses were set up to achieve a worthwhile goal, they have had unintended consequences. The Mixed Income Height Bonus was created to offset the effects of gentrification and provide funding for affordable housing. The green roof height bonus is intended to help cope with the runoff of heavy rain and support the city’s sustainability goals. The problem is, they are also driving demolitions by allowing developers to build larger structures with more units, which allows them to get more rent from the same piece of land.
This is exactly what happens in Block 3700 on Lancaster Avenue, a syncopated ensemble of 19th-century brick houses with small shop fronts on the ground floor and identical eaves. Although the row is in near perfect condition, one designer intends to rip two properties right down the middle and split the block in two. Using both the mixed income and the green roof bonus, the developer plans to build an apartment complex with 16 units. The demolitions in the middle of the block, similar to those on Christian Street, are becoming more common across the city.
Many development advocates argue that such projects increase the city’s housing supply and do not cause rents to rise too quickly. They are not entirely wrong in their economic analysis, but they underestimate the contribution architecture makes to the soul of Philadelphia. These ensembles give the city its identity, bind us as citizens together and make our streets an interesting place for walking and cycling.
When the city council introduced the tax break in the late 1990s to encourage the renovation of mothballed office buildings, it almost certainly had no intention of destroying intact and inhabited buildings. Every time an occupied building is demolished to make way for a new building, someone is evicted and has to look for new apartments.
In both Lancaster Avenue and Christian Street, an increase in the number of units within the existing structures was achieved through several new floors. Even if the client merely saved the facade and installed a new building behind the old walls – a so-called facade nectomy – that would be better than demolition.
Such a compromise could result in bailing out the two old banks on Front Street, according to David Neff, a public relations specialist who represents the owner. Neff did not want to disclose the developer’s identity, but said the company hired Canno Architecture to design or build over a facade similar to the one they have executed in Stable Lofts on North Broad Street. Neff said the developers had applied for demolition permits “as a preparatory measure” should the project fail.
It is not clear whether the two-tower St. Laurentius will be so lucky. The church has been neglected for years, but has always managed to avoid the wrecking ball. But after its towers were classified as unsafe last year, the Historical Commission gave the owner, Humberto Fernandini of North Jersey, permission to remove them. Nothing about that changed until the demolition notice was published last week.
I contacted Fernandini through LinkedIn and a lawyer who represents him on other matters, but he didn’t respond. I also sent a question to Jon Farnham, the Executive Director of the Historical Commission. Based on his long and convoluted answer to a long list of municipal procedures, it appears that Fernandini is going to tear down the towers, but not tear down the entire church. But it’s hard to know.
Mayor Kenney took office pledging to improve the treatment of the city’s old buildings, and his heritage conservation task force spent 18 months investigating the issues. There have been several major rescues, including the Metropolitan Opera House in North Broad and a beautiful limestone bench in Kensington. “Mayor Kenney has said time and again that he prefers adaptive reuse to demolition,” a city spokesperson wrote in an email.
However, a look at the city’s database of building demolitions shows that the number of demolitions has remained remarkably constant since Kenney’s tenure began. Monthly totals hit 117 in January 2017, the month he was sworn in. They hit a low of 29 demolitions in July 2020 during the depths of the pandemic.
In July of this year the number of demolitions had risen to 75 again. It seems like Philadelphia will continue to gradually lose its architectural legacy if officials don’t start taking conservation seriously.