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Spruce Hill Historic District
Questions Asked At The April 24 Public Meeting

 

Designation Process

Why do we need an historic district given the recent rise in property values and influx of property owners doing the right thing with their historic buildings?
Unfortunately, sometimes people who want to do the "right thing" may actually damage the historic fabric of a property. This is seen on the 300 block of 42nd Street where a developer a number of years ago had all of the porches removed in order make the buildings more "historic." The Historical Commission would not approve this kind of alteration.

Couldn't the overall goals of historic preservation be accomplished by education and incentives rather than by rigid rules and regulations that researchers at Temple University have said impose such great encumbrances that they are "confiscatory"?
The mission of the Historical Commission does include education. Members of the Commission and its staff routinely go into various neighborhoods to explain historic designation and discuss the history of the city. Also, the Commission publishes manuals for property owners in the different historic districts, explaining maintenance and other issues associated with historic properties. The City currently does not offer any financial incentives for preservation per se.

The report written by several researchers at Temple University has several flaws. First, it was published at a time when the City faced bankruptcy and area businesses and property owners were in financial straits. The economic outlook for the City now has changed dramatically. Center City and the surrounding neighborhoods are experiencing a dramatic rise in population and increased demand for housing. This was not taken into account in the Temple research and would radically change the calculations if they were performed today. Second, the Temple report was written when the city only had two local historic districts, Diamond Street and Park Mall, both in North Philadelphia and approximately 5,000 properties appeared on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. Since then, the Commission has created six more historic districts and added more than 5,000 historic properties to the Register. These additions would definitely alter the calculations of the research.

You claim to preserve history. Why do you want to preserve the history of a period that was unkind, to put it kindly, to minorities and women?
Although the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (the period of significance for West Philadelphia) were not kind to minorities and women, some may say the same about today. Acknowledging these injustices helps educate everyone and perhaps changes the future of how minorities are treated. Recognizing the importance of this period of development in the city follows the adage "Those who don't know history are condemned to repeat it." Also, a large part of the district's significance lies in its architecture, spatial development and physical characteristics, elements that reflect the general history of the area.

Has a historic district ever not been designated once it went through the nomination process?
No. The Historical Commission has only designated eight historic districts, and all of them were supported by the residents.

How will the Historic Commission determine if this neighborhood wants to be historically designated? vote?, show of hands? what?
The Historical Commission asks all residents, whether they are for or against designation, to write to the Commission or come to a meeting to express their views. There is no formal vote among residents.

If a large section of Spruce Hill (say Northwest section) as a whole does not want to be a part of the District, why not re-draw the boundaries of the district to accommodate this section?
District boundaries are drawn to reflect the historical elements that shaped the area. The proposed boundaries are just that, proposed. They typically look to the history of the area's development, integrity of the buildings and any natural or man-made borders. However, the Commission, in its deliberations, may choose to change those boundaries.

How do I see a copy of the nomination petition? Why hasn't it been published? Where is the database on each district structure?
The nomination has not been formally submitted to the Historical Commission. When it is, the Commission will make it available to the public.

Will there be adequate provision for public participation in the local preservation program (at large commission members)?
All of the meetings held by the Committee on Historic Designation and the Commission itself will have a period for the public to give comments and ask questions. The Commission will hold as many meetings as necessary to afford an adequate opportunity for members of the public to be heard.

If this passes and we are declared a historic district… Say after a few years the residents are not happy. How can we un-designate ourselves?
The rescission (or de-designation) process is the same as designation. After receiving formal application for rescission, the application goes to the Committee on Historic Designation for a recommendation and then the Historical Commission itself will hold hearings and act on the application.

When is the next meeting?
The University City Historical Society and the Spruce Hill Community Association will be planning more meetings to provide residents with information and to answer questions. The formal meetings of the Historical Commission have not been scheduled because it has not yet received the nomination.

What are the criteria for actually making the historic designation after the nomination has been submitted? More directly, is it a done deal?
The receipt of a nomination does not automatically mean that the resource (building, structure, site, object or district) is designated. It simply means that the Historical Commission will have meetings to review the nomination and determine its eligibility.

My biggest concern is the process. I'd like to see some sort of straw poll to determine the extent of community support - through a post card vote. I'd be much more accepting if I knew a clear majority was for the historical district. Will you work to make this happen?
Some of the neighborhoods that became historic districts in the past have held this type of "vote." Society Hill and Girard Estate created postcards that were sent directly to the Commission. In both of those neighborhoods, the results were overwhelmingly in favor of designation.

Why are so many blocks of non-contributing houses included in the District Boundaries?
A building may be listed as non-contributing for several reasons: it's an older building that has lost so much historic material that its historical integrity is compromised; it's a building that was built after the district's period of significance, e.g. a CVS built in 1994; the property is an empty lot. Since the Commission has not received the formal nomination, the staff has not reviewed the inventory to determine the number of non-contributing buildings.

Why has the proposal been prepared before informing the community or even polling people to see if they want it?
The University City Historical Society has been working on getting the neighborhood designated for over 15 years, so this is not a new concept for the community. Since it did not receive any opposition to the proposal until now, it assumed that the majority of the neighborhood has supported this.

Where's the justice in the law setting up the PHC as an advocate of designation, a group that assists in preparing the papers, approves the nomination, then enforces the regulation - All without a vote of the residents?
Philadelphia's City Council created the Historical Commission and charged it with the duty to identify and preserve the resources that are important historically, architecturally, archeologically and culturally. To fulfill its purpose, the Commission performs architectural surveys, educates the public on the values of the historic designation and the resources found in the city, and regulates the changes to those resources. Just as residents do not approve other laws in the city, they do not have to approve the workings of the Historical Commission.

Why can't blocks where everyone want this, have it? While everyone else is free to spend their money on their buildings as they see fit?
The history and development of the neighborhood, the basis for designation in the first place, is not limited to individual blocks, but a reflection of the neighborhood as a whole. To designate some blocks and not others does not recognize the organic and cohesive nature of the historic importance of the area.

Architecturally, demographically and economically, the closet match to University City in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania may be the Shadyside West community in Pittsburgh, a Victorian neighborhood that lies next to the large inner-city campus of the University of Pittsburgh. In 1990, a Shadyside West Historic District was proposed by a community association. After study of the proposal, strong opposition arose in the community. the City of Pittsburgh permitted residents of the proposed district to vote, and the proposal was defeated by 70% to 30%. Did either Spruce Hill Civic Association or the Philadelphia Historic Commission ever review the Pittsburgh experience? If so, do you have any reactions to it?
Actually, Pittsburgh does not incorporate a formal resident-voting process in its designation procedures. The community association in Shadyside West did submit a nomination, with the required petition of support from 25% of the residents, to the Pittsburgh Historical Review Commission. After much deliberation, the community association withdrew the nomination before the final vote.

However, a section of Pittsburgh more analogous to West Philadelphia is Manchester. Manchester began as a suburb of Pittsburgh in the late 19th century, but the City of Pittsburgh later annexed it into the city proper. It has immense single-family houses and large row houses with ornate detailing that were built for the managerial and upper classes. Over time it has become a racially and economically mixed neighborhood, with many of the houses becoming apartments. The City of Pittsburgh designated Manchester as a local historic district almost 20 years ago and the racial and economic make-up of the neighborhood did not change.

If residents of Pittsburgh are permitted to vote on a proposed Historic District that would affect them, why can't residents of Philadelphia do the same?
Residents in Pittsburgh are not permitted to vote on proposed historic districts as a formal part of the designation process. Just as re-zoning occasionally occurs as a result of community initiative without the residents actually voting on the re-zoning bill, so the designation of the historic districts commonly stems from a community's submitting a nomination to the Historical Commission. Upon receipt of the nomination, the Commission begins the process prescribed by its ordinance and Rules and Regulations, including providing notices by letter, poster and advertisement, the holding of meetings and eventually acting on the nomination. Case law in other jurisdictions indicates that delegating the power to residents and/or owners to decide the question of approval or rejection of a historic district may be illegal and unconstitutional.

If ¼ or more of the area's residents do not want an historic district, will the Commission still vote to inflict it upon us? (I want an answer from each of the people on the Commission who set to vote).
See above.

When do the members of the community, all 16- 1900 of them get to vote on this proposal? How do a group of approximately 100 people make a decision for the community?
See above.

How does the Commission weigh, analyze and incorporate public input into their decision - seems like it is very subjective. The most democratic way to decide this would be to have a referendum vote - every household getting one vote yes or no. What would it take to have such a vote?
See above.

How will we find out when the real and final decision is being made?
When the Historical Commission receives the nomination and the staff has reviewed it for accuracy and completeness, the Commission will send every property owner a letter announcing the meetings for the proposed district. Posters will be hung on every block giving the proposed boundaries and the meeting dates. All meetings will be open to the public and attendants will be offered a chance to voice concerns, support or opposition to the proposed district. After numerous meetings, the Historical Commission will vote on the proposal.

Has a proposed historic district ever been rejected? Do we the people, the residents, have the poser of the vote in deciding?
The Commission has not rejected a nomination for a proposed historic district. Of the eight historic districts designated in Philadelphia, all of them had the support of local residents.

The PHC says that it's more "lenient" about permits for non-contributing than contributing buildings. If this is really about history, why should the requirement apply to non-contributing buildings at all?
When the Historical Commission reviews changes to a non-contributing property, it's to regulate how those changes affect the overall streetscape and environment of the district. Will the changes affect the overall size, scale and materials that make up the district? Although a property may be non-contributing, changes to it may adversely affect the neighborhood.

Why are large sections of Spruce Hill included within the proposed boundaries when they have mostly properties that are called "non contributing" because of when they were built and how much they've been changed over the years, or the fact that they were designed as apartment houses rather them singles?
The use of a building would not dictate if it is "contributing" or "non-contributing." A building may be listed as non-contributing for several reasons: it's an older building that has lost so much historic material that its historical integrity is compromised; it's a building that was built after the district's period of significance, e.g. a CVS built in 1994; the property is an empty lot.

How do local citizens make themselves heard over the vocal lobbying of landlords? What voice do local residents have regarding membership on the Historic Commission?
The Historical Commission is a 14-member body created by City ordinance. The mayor appoints eight members and they must include an architect, a historian, an architectural historian, a member of a Community Development Corporation, a member of a community association and a developer. The other six members are ex-officio's from various city offices, including City Council, Office of Housing and Community Development, Department of Licenses and Inspections, Commerce, Planning Commission and Public Property.

To voice your opposition to or support of the proposed district, the best way would be to write to the Historical Commission. All letters and post cards will be shown to the Commission members and made part of the public record at the time of the Commission meetings. Please include your address on all correspondence.

Why isn't there a listing of all designated properties on your web site?
Our website is still under construction, so the list, which is quite large with over 10,500 properties, has not been posted yet. The Commission hopes to have it up soon. In the meantime, if you wish to know if a particular address is on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, you may call the Commission directly.

Have you gauged the opinion of the large corporate landlords in the proposed district (primarily the ones specializing in student apartments close to Penn's campus)? Will these businesses be subject to the same regulations as less financially - able property owners or landlords? I speak of the "beige block" which George expressed dissatisfaction with. How do these businesses feel about the proposed historical restrictions?
If the Commission designates the district, then the Historical Commission will regulate every property within its boundaries, regardless of the building's use or ownership.

Have you done a block by block survey of private homeowners verse large realty companies (it seems the private owner will suffer while the absentee landlords can just ignore you & pay whatever fines are levied)? Have you noticed the damage that has already been done?
The University City Historical Society and the Spruce Hill Community Association are sponsoring individual block meetings to discuss historic designation and to hear the comments of individual residents.

How come the McDonald's site at 43rd & Market Street was excluded from the proposed boundaries?
When the boundaries are proposed for a district, strong edges are preferred. Market Street sets a very strong boundary for the northern section of the district. Only two properties along Market Street are in the proposed boundaries, and they are part of the northern area that has importance as a part of the African-American development in the neighborhood.

What are the boundaries of the district?
The boundaries for the proposed West Philadelphia district do not have many straight lines. The boundaries are, roughly, Ludlow Street to Woodland Avenue, 40th Street west to 47th Street. The University City Historical Society has a map on its website and copies of the map are available at the Commission.

Has the PHC's Committee on Historic Designation ever totally rejected a nomination, as opposed to sending it back for revision and refused to recommend it the full commission?
Yes, there have been nominations for individual properties where the Historical Commission has rejected the nomination, though it does not happen often.

When will the nomination actually be submitted to the historical commission?
The Historical Commission expects to receive the nomination in the next month or two.

Is it true that once notices are sent out to property owners that a hearing is scheduled, all exterior work will be subject to PHC approval, even though hearings have not been held or decision made for at least two months?
Yes, this is a moratorium established by the historic preservation ordinance. The purpose of this moratorium is to prevent insensitive demolitions or changes while the Commission is considering the designation of the district. This does not mean that people cannot make changes to their properties. It only means that the changes require the review of the Historical Commission.

How can you get more people on the Historic Commission? I am sure that you need more.
The number of people on the Historical Commission is set by City ordinance. The number of staff grows as the workload for the Commission increases. The Mayor and City Council set the budget for the Historical Commission, which, in turn, determines the number of staff members.

Why are your meetings held during the weekdays? Many working people cannot take time off from work to attend these meetings.
As with other city business, meetings and such take place during business hours. The Commission understands that many people cannot take off work or have other obligations. To accommodate them, the Commission will have at least one meeting at night in the neighborhood.

How many properties in the district already are on the register? If you do not have actual numbers, percentages would be helpful.
Very few, approximately 100 buildings in the proposed district already appear on the Philadelphia Register.

Was there an established year of construction of buildings, which was considered as appropriate/necessary for inclusion in the district?
The general period of significance for the proposed district is 1840 - 1930.

How does historic designation preserve history is if it only prescribes facades visible from a public right of way?
"History" can be preserved in many forms of material culture, photographs, diaries, architecture, objects, oral histories; the list can go on and on. Although architecture is only one product of a particular time, it very often is the most visible and tangible of these. By preserving the historical integrity of a particular area or neighborhood, the properties retain the elements that reflect the particular time in which they were built. The architecture of West Philadelphia reflect a time when labor was extremely cheap, the industrial age allowed for ornate, machine-made products to decorate a building, public transportation opened the area to new residents who continued the trend of moving westward, and residents preferred a suburban neighborhood with many gardens. The aim of the historic district would be to protect this reflection and to ensure that it exists for future generations.

How can I get one of those plaques for my house?
There are two requirements for a Historical Commission plaque, the property must appear on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places and it must have design integrity. Plaque applications are available from the Commission.

If in ten years (give or take) could the designation to have the area be a historic district be revisited?
The rescission (or de-designation) process is the same as designation. After receiving formal application for rescission, the application goes to the Committee on Historic Designation for a recommendation and then the Historical Commission itself for hearings and a decision.

Unfortunately the wonderful Zantziger-Borie Library at 40th & Walnut is outside of the proposed boundary of the historic district. Is there any way to include this delightful building in the district? I realize Penn's sprawling campus hinders this, but the building is worth it.
It would be difficult to include this building in the district, for there is no architectural linkage between it and the proposed district.

How soon can we expect this district to be in effect?
Since the Commission has not received a formal nomination yet, it is difficult to say. The Commission is processing the nomination for the proposed Old City Historic District, which will take approximately one year. The meetings for the proposed West Philadelphia district will not happen before then.

If so few applications for building permits were denied to homeowners by the commission, why do you need this bureaucracy that basically says that you don't trust the public to make decisions for themselves?
So few are denied outright because the staff and the Commission take the time to work with property owners, architects and contractors. Many applications, when they first come to the Commission office would not be approved, but after meeting with the staff and learning the products available on the market and doing historic research using the Commission's files, the applications change. Many of the approvals result from these meetings.

Our house is not in the District. How can we expand the District to include the historic twins and singles west of Spruce Hill?
The proposed district's boundaries are set according to a specific period of development. The area just west of the proposed district (Garden Court) represents a different period of development and should be recognized as its own historic district.

Can individual properties select not to be included in the historic district? If it is the mansions that are of concerned to the historic district people, than only designate them and leave the rest of us alone.
The purpose of the historic district is to recognize the development and history of the entire area and district boundaries are drawn to reflect the historical elements that shaped the area. The proposed boundaries are just that, proposed. They typically look to the history of the area's development, integrity of the buildings and any natural or man-made borders.

Will the people in this neighborhood be kept abreast of the progress of this proposal?
Absolutely. The University City Historical Society, Spruce Hill CommunityAssociation and Councilwoman Blackwell's office will send out updates on the nomination's progress. You may also call the Historical Commission directly if you have any questions.

Many of these questions address very specific situations. Without knowing the subject property's address or having photographs showing the existing conditions, it is difficult to give answers that take into account every instance that may occur on every building. If you have any follow-up questions, please do not hesitate to contact the Historical Commission directly at 215-686-7660.

The questions were grouped into broad categories. Click the category to see that group of questions and answers.

Technical | Building Permit Application Process | Designation Process
Enforcement | Tax Incentives & Economic Hardship | Impact
Neighborhood Transformation Initiative | University of Pennsylvania
Ethics | Comment
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