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Spruce Hill Historic District
A Letter From UCHS


Dear UCHS Members and Friends:

I first want to say that I am honored and privileged to serve as your new president. The University City Historical Society has long provided a valuable stewardship role for the great asset of our historic and attractive community. We know that one of the greatest assets of our West Philadelphia community is its architectural integrity, and that the preservation of that integrity is integral to our survival.

As most of you know, this year, the greatest priority for the historical society is the creation of the Spruce Hill Historic District (officially known as the “West Philadelphia Streetcar Suburb Municipal Historic District”). Although we will eventually consider local historic districts in other University City neighborhoods, our efforts continue to be focused on gaining designation for Spruce Hill–a process begun in 1987. Spruce Hill is also a priority for the historical society, as it has a large concentration of landlords who continue to damage their buildings in an attempt to maximize their short-term net operating income.

Tragically, after a fifteen-year struggle, it appears that the political process may jeopardize this effort.

In recent weeks, Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell introduced an ordinance in City Council that would not allow the City's Historic Commission to create any new historic districts. Rather, the Commission could only make recommendations, and all new districts would have to be created by City Council.

Based on the City Council policy of "councilmanic prerogative", we know that the body would defer to the district councilperson (Councilwoman Blackwell) to make the decision, thereby changing the process from one based on architectural and historical merit determined by the experts on the Board of the Commission and its staff, to a political process to be determined solely by Councilwoman Blackwell.

In addition, this would make the process distinctly less democratic. Whereas the Historical Commission holds community meetings, sends mailings to every property owner, and provides many avenues for input, the City Council process would be exposed to the politicking, lobbying, and institutional pressures that we have seen kill many pieces of valuable community legislation. The Historical Commission has a policy of systematically polling for community support, and only supporting nominations where there is community buy-in. The City Council process is much more susceptible to the disproportionate influence of those people and corporate entities that have the resources to amplify their voices.

While we are on the topic of the democratic process, it is important to note that Councilwoman Blackwell chose to not consult any of the community organizations in the area, or as far we can determine, any of the city based preservation organizations, or for that matter, the director of the City’s Historical Commission, in introducing the ordinance.

Upon learning about this, Kate Stover from Spruce Hill Community Association and I immediately arranged for a meeting with the Councilwoman to discuss the issue.

What I have to report back to all of you is somewhat disheartening. Councilwoman Blackwell told us that she didn’t really care whether Spruce Hill became a historic district or not. In fact, she said she has no opinion on the matter, and would not have an opinion on the matter. The only insight she offered was that she said that no one should be able to tell anyone else what to do with his or her property. Councilwoman Blackwell said that she introduced her ordinance because she didn’t have confidence in the Historical Commission to ensure that the community supported the district, and that she wanted that to be her decision in City Council. She added that although she doesn’t currently oppose the historic district, she would not support it until it was demonstrated that a majority of the people in the proposed district wanted it to occur.

Kate Stover and I understood Councilwoman Blackwell’s position, and asked what she thought we could do to demonstrate that a majority supported the historic district. Councilwoman Blackwell replied by telling us that she didn’t know how, or if, it could even be demonstrated.

That left us at somewhat of an impasse. If we had to demonstrate that a majority supported the historic district, but there was no process to get there, and it might not be possible, then where were we left?

We also appealed to Councilwoman Blackwell on political grounds, asking why she would put herself in the middle of the controversy over the historic district by introducing her ordinance. She told us that she did this, because she didn’t know what the Historical Commission does, who are on its board, or what the process is for historic designation. She said she had hoped to be educated about the process along with the community, but as that hadn’t happened, she needed to introduce the ordinance in order to have a say in the process.

She likened the situation to the current hold she has placed on a proposed zoning ordinance which would add additional zoning restrictions on properties in the northern area of Spruce Hill to protect the residential communities there. She complained that there too she was assured that there was little opposition, only to be called by a few irate large landlords complaining about how this would adversely affect their properties. She was required to pull the bill.

And here is where my story ends.

I say this, only in that I am not sure how we proceed from here. Councilwoman Blackwell told us that she would not table or withdraw the ordinance. She also disagreed with our assessment that the ordinance was “changing the rules” on the community mid-game.

Rather, she expects to pass the ordinance, and to rest final say for the historic district in her office.

That makes one thing crystal clear, however. If we are going to have a historic district in Spruce Hill, we will only have it with Councilwoman Blackwell’s support. Thus, we need to refocus our primary effort for the next year, in gaining her support.

As such, I am going to make a request of you. If you care about our community, its future, and its historical integrity, then please mail a letter to the Councilwoman. Inform her, in your own words, of the value you place on the architectural heritage of University City and the importance of historic district designation in ensuring its preservation.

Urge Councilwoman Blackwell to rescind her proposed bill, which would gut the main provisions of an ordinance originally sponsored by then-Councilman John Street –- one that combined informed historical judgment in the Commission's certification with extensive local democratic consultation and input. Councilwoman Blackwell’s proposed ordinance would destroy that balanced process in favor of one where a single person in each councilmanic district would have sole authority to deny historic districts. The great concern, of course, is that this would give additional power to some irresponsible large investors and developers to use their wealth and influence to lobby and fight all efforts at historic preservation. In University City, where nearly 82% of properties are investment owned and which has some of the wealthiest and most vocal opponents of historic preservation, these pressures are a daily threat to our community’s sustained vitality.

If you mail a letter to the Councilwoman, as we have requested, please provide us with a copy. Her address is:

Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell
City Hall, Room 408
Philadelphia, PA 19107-3290

(you may also fax your thoughts to Councilwoman Blackwell at Hallwatch.org's faxbank site)

While this is underway, I can assure you that the boards of the University City Historical Society and the Spruce Hill Community Association will devote a significant effort to continue to reach out to the Councilwoman, to continue our unprecedented community education efforts, and to call upon the citywide preservation community to come to our aid.

In sum, I believe that Councilwoman Blackwell’s current lack of support is based in her concerns over the level of community support, and a belief that the community association and the historical society do not represent the majority view. I believe that with continued communication and education, we will be able to show overwhelming community support. Councilwoman Blackwell has always supported the community, even when under intense pressure from large landlords and large institutions. We need her support now, but we will have to work for it. I have confidence that she will join us in making the historic district part of our legacy so that generations will be able to enjoy our unique community fabric.

Greg Montanaro