Update on Philadelphia

Thanks to tsj1957 for sending along the link to the Neshoba Democrat article about last Monday’s historic preservation commission meeting in Philadelphia. As I’m sure you recall from my previous post because you read every last word in every post I’ve ever written, this was a demolition issue involving a house designed by the Starkville firm of Johnston & Jones as a parsonage for First Baptist Church in Philadelphia. The Baptists had decided they need to put their fancy and large new day-care center on that piece of property and had come to the commission with their demolition request.

Here are few excerpts from the article:

First Baptist Church was granted permission to relocate or demolish a circa 1950s Arts and Crafts style house in the historic district in order to construct a new day care center which members say they need to fulfill their Christian mission.
. . . .
The meeting at the historic railroad depot was attended by about 50 people, most of them church members, many of whom stood and spoke in favor of the day care, some stating they believed it’s the Lord’s will for the facility be built to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Philadelphia Historic Preservation Commission voted 4-0 on Monday night to allow the church to demolish the structure in six months if the house can’t be given away and relocated.
. . .
The site, adjacent to the church campus, is zoned residential as is the church property, according to the City Building Official’s Office.

City officials said the home site would not have to be re-zoned in order for the day care to be built.
. . . .
At one point during the discussion, Perry recommended that the church have its architect put in writing why the parsonage couldn’t be saved and included in plans for a new day care.

“I think in the final analysis this committee is going to need that,” Perry said.

I have a few comments, which I will helpfully put into bullet form for those of you who have developed ADD from spending too much time on the internet:

  • First, I have the utmost respect for people who serve their communities on the historic preservation commission. It is often a thankless task in which you’re confronted by 50 people who are all against you. Often you are pressured or not supported by your own city leaders, and I’m surprised that local commissions accomplish as much as they often do in spite of these adversities.
  • However, I’m really surprised by the one-meeting decision on this request, especially given (from what I understand) that it’s really the first demolition request they’ve gotten in their relatively brief history that doesn’t involve some structural reason for the demolition. While they might have eventually come to the same conclusion, this decision in one meeting seems to set a precedent that you can get a demolition permit pretty easily, even if you can’t prove that the building is structurally unsound or that you’ve considered all other options. You can bet that every other church and business owner in the historic district will bring this up when they come before the commission with a demolition request for a new parking lot or a fellowship hall or whatever.
  • There didn’t seem to be any follow-up on Mr. Perry’s perfectly reasonable suggestion that the commission receive an indication of why the daycare couldn’t be put on other empy spots that the church owns. I’m surprised the commission didn’t just make that request and table the matter until they received the information.
  • It’s unfortunate that two of the commission members had to recuse themselves, making the commission barely have a quorum for this important decision. I know conflict-of-interest is an important issue, but in these small towns that dot our state, if you have an ounce of community energy, you’re going to be on several boards or a member of several organizations. It seems unrealistic to have people recusing themselves as if they were in a big city or something. What if one more member of the commission had been a First Baptist member? They wouldn’t have even had a quorum.
  • My goodness! The lot doesn’t have to be re-zoned from residential to be a large daycare center? Wow! Hope nobody gets any ideas in my neighborhood.
  • I feel like I can say this as a Christian, and one who attends church several times a week: there’s a line between showing your congregation’s interest in an issue and seeming to be a bully, and I think 50 people crosses that line, especially in a small town like Philadelphia. Refer to top bullet point.

Actually, I’m much more interested in this editorial in the Neshoba Democrat(I have to say again how good the Democrat’s coverage of this issue, very educated about the issues, which is unusual in a preservation-related article in my experience) a week before the commission meeting. It doesn’t take much reading-between-the-lines to realize  that the City leadership is perceived as being  unsupportive of the preservation commission:

Two recent cases have simply called attention to a need for a more unified preservation and downtown redevelopment effort.

We’re not against anybody.

Without historic preservation, there would be no Garden District in New Orleans or Belhaven in Jackson.

Historic preservation is a mindset, a philosophy. Some communities have it, some don’t. It’s a choice.

Philadelphia is trying, and the historic preservation efforts should be encouraged.

Likewise, downtown redevelopment is a mindset, a philosophy and the two – preservation and redevelopment – are intrinsically tied. Oxford, Canton, Starkville and Columbus all have been successful in their efforts.

The designation of an historic residential district in Philadelphia in the 1980s and eventually the formation of the Philadelphia Historic Preservation Commission were visionary actions.
. . . .
The seven-member commission, appointed by the Mayor and Board of Aldermen, has been horribly misunderstood from the outset, and we worry whether the commission truly has the political backing required because so many folks tend to cut and run as soon as the slightest controversy arises.

Is Philadelphia a town that genuinely values historic preservation?

That is a legitimate question.

Time was the Philadelphia Main Street Association was highly involved in historic preservation. Outside architects and professionals were made available to local business owners with much success.
. . . .
Unfortunately, that early momentum has died. 

The Democrat asks legitimate questions and maybe it’s time for the Philadelphia city leadership to ask themselves whether they are willing to handle the confrontation that preservation can sometimes require. I’m not saying that this one demolition (actually this is the 2nd in a period of a couple of months) is the end of the road for the preservation commission. This was a hard one to come so early for the commission–they need some time to recover, re-group, and decide whether they could have done better and if so, how? Preservation is not a short, easy road; every preservation organization, no matter how great and successful, has taken a lot of hits, seen more demolitions than it wanted to, but the key is to learn from defeats and move on.

A primary goal I think the commission should work toward is educating the community about their own architecture, what it means, why it’s important, why the commission exists, and how they can all work together to preserve the historic character of Philadelphia. Part of that education involves looking at good preservation principles, like streetscapes and original materials and not creating holes in neighborhoods. Why retaining the original wood windows is better in the long run for most houses than putting in new vinyl ones (you don’t want to know how many catastrophic moisture problems I’ve seen from new vinyl windows–all sorts of rot and wasted money). If the citizenry is educated about what’s going on, they still may not like an individual decision, but at least they’ll know it isn’t random or baseless, and they might buy in to the idea that preservation is really the ultimate in environmental stewardship (hey, isn’t stewardship a Christian principle too? I’m just saying . . . .)

At any rate, I’m disappointed by the decision, of course, but thankful the commission members are willing to sacrifice their time, energy, talents, and stress-level as an act of love for their neighbors. I hope the commission can learn from this experience and hopefully come out of it stronger and more able to deal with future difficult decisions. To do that, they need a city leadership that they know will back them on the important decisions.



Categories: Demolition/Abandonment, Historic Preservation, Philadelphia, Preservation Law/Local Commissions

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  1. MissPres News Roundup 6-20-2011 | Preservation in Mississippi

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