Changing Skyline | 2 Phila. historic buildings wrongly leveled

Posted: June 08, 2007

By the time you read this, fresh asphalt will be cooling on another surface parking lot in Old City. That lot replaces two historic buildings that doggedly held the corner of Front and Chestnut Streets for almost 200 years, serving the neighborhood as it transitioned from a center of maritime commerce, to a blighted warehouse district, to a trendy place to live.

In a city as old as Philadelphia, you expect to lose a few historic structures now and then. What makes this case stand out is the high-profile location and the fact that the city was firmly on the side of preservation. Three agencies joined forces to defend the pair of Greek Revival buildings from an ambitious developer who considered them a nuisance. That official city policy, however, was undermined by a building inspector who acted on his own initiative and assisted the owner in obtaining a demolition permit.

Bulldozers smashed the two 1830s buildings to dust last month, but the case is likely to reverberate a long time in City Hall. The matter is under investigation by Philadelphia's inspector general, Seth Williams. Officials at three agencies - the Historical Commission, the Department of Licenses and Inspections, and the Law Department - are engaged in discussions about what went wrong and how to plug the loopholes.

They need to do more than talk. What happened at Front and Chestnut Streets reveals deep structural weaknesses in the city's preservation system.

The demolished buildings occupied Philadelphia's oldest commercial intersection, and were a reminder of its thriving 19th-century maritime economy. But they were also an integral part of the city's 21st-century Internet-age, leisure-time economy. This summer, the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. begins a campaign to encourage tourists to venture from Independence Mall to the real "Historic Philadelphia" of Old City. Too bad they'll see a decidedly unhistoric parking lot at the end of Chestnut Street.

In hindsight, it's clear that the city was too accommodating in its dealings with the property owners, Harvey and Robert Spear. Even before they bought the two buildings in 2005, for a whopping $1.5 million, the structures had been cited by L&I as unsafe. But because the Spears planned to incorporate them into a high-rise condo project on the empty lot next door, the city didn't press the developers to make stabilizing repairs. That was Mistake No. 1.

Once the condo market softened and the Spears were unable to build their tower, they sought to get rid of the old buildings. The Historical Commission and L&I administrators adamantly refused their requests, on the grounds that the brothers knew what they were getting into when they purchased the teetering historic properties. But the Spears outfoxed them.

According to those involved with the city investigation, the Spears sought out an L&I inspector who was not assigned to the Old City area and invited him to visit the buildings. After touring the structures and reading an engineering report supplied by the Spears, he declared the buildings imminently dangerous - effectively handing them a demolition order - without consulting with his superiors. When the Spears, represented by top zoning lawyer Carl Primavera, pressed the case in court, the judge ruled in their favor. In an interview, Harvey Spear said that ruling vindicated their position.

Despite the value of Philadelphia's rich historic patrimony to its self-image, residential appeal, and tourist economy, L&I inspectors are still likely to treat certified historic properties no differently from generic ones. That attitude undercuts everything the Historical Commission is trying to accomplish.

For reasons that remain unclear, L&I officials never withdrew the inspector's citation. That was Mistake No. 2. "The entire process here under which the buildings were declared imminently dangerous by a single inspector is troubling," said Historical Commission chairman Michael Sklaroff. L&I Commissioner Robert D. Solvibile agrees.

Although Philadelphia probably has more intact old neighborhoods than any other big American city, there's still a tendency to view preservation as a hobby of the elite, rather than as a vital planning tool that can help leverage economic development. The Historical Commission's entire annual budget is just $300,000, roughly what a typical developer might spend on legal fees.

Yet Old City owes its boom to the noble cast-iron buildings that line its streets. The blocks that begin uphill from the Delaware waterfront became a desirable place to live because people sensed an authenticity in the faded warehouses, where clerks once sorted shipping manifests and merchants auctioned off crates of wool and cotton.

While the other Front Street intersections are in tatters because of years of neglect, the one at Chestnut Street looked, until last month, pretty much as it did in 1830. Gazing at the Delaware, you could understand the intimate relationship Philadelphians once enjoyed with their big river.

The loss of the two corner buildings now endangers the survivors on Chestnut Street. Demolition crews were still at work on the corner when the Spears offered to buy the building next door, at 105 Chestnut, owner Joe Headley said. "We have no plans to sell," he insisted.

Though Front and Chestnut's great maritime corner is now a memory, there is much the city can do to prevent more creeping destruction.

It should start by following up on L&I citations to make sure owners of historic properties undertake repairs before it's too late. The Historical Commission needs to provide L&I inspectors with a database of endangered historic structures. All the cross-referencing in the world won't mean a thing unless L&I officials emphasize that historic buildings are valued more than run-of-the-mill ones.

Those are certainly important reforms. But the city will not be able to learn from its mistakes at Front and Chestnut until it confronts the real story: How did a single inspector acting independently derail its official strategy?


Changing Skyline |

Inga Saffron blogs about Philadelphia architecture at http://go.philly.com/skyline


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.

 

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