A Field Guide To Demolition
Editor’s Note: A version of this story was published in the Winter 2017 issue of Extant, a publication of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.
Development pressure on historic buildings in Philadelphia is primarily driven by developers’ desire to acquire large parcels of land for housing. Purchasing a single, sizable property allows them to build a number of units at once, reducing costs and eliminating the uncertainty of negotiating with multiple property owners. Unfortunately, the types of buildings sitting on those large parcels–churches, meeting halls, grand homes, workshops, and factories–are the very structures that define our neighborhoods’ visual character and historical context. Although a wide variety of buildings are being torn down across the city, patterns do emerge in certain areas. These pressures particular to each neighborhood should be taken into account by policymakers as they prioritize what to protect.
Neighborhood: University City/Powelton
Threatened Building Type: Large Victorian homes
Dynamic: Developers are targeting single-family homes on large lots, many of which were previously converted into multi-unit rentals. Although these properties are usually occupied and produce income, the robust market for rentals near Penn, Drexel, and University of the Sciences makes them worth more as tear-downs. The number of additional units that can be created is more than enough to make the numbers work. For example, a 25-unit building replaced a 10-unit building at both 4042-44 and 4046-48 Chestnut Street. The reduction of parking requirements in 2012 inadvertently made this approach more financially attractive to developers by reducing the cost per unit. A similar situation exists west of Broad Street adjacent to Temple University.
Neighborhood: Graduate Hospital/Bella Vista
Threatened Building Type: 19th century churches
Dynamic: Residential South Philadelphia features blocks of row houses, with a sprinkle of schools and churches. While many of the schools have been repurposed, developers have targeted churches for demolition. The parcels they sit on are large enough for developers to include parking in the back–a tremendous plus in these parking-scarce areas. Although modest, the buildings are repositories for a great deal of these neighborhoods’ African-American heritage. The churches themselves are often willing sellers, as their congregations have been pushed out of the neighborhood by increasing real estate values. The Union Baptist Church where Marian Anderson learned to sing is perhaps the most prominent casualty. Churches of similar size have also been torn down in Fishtown, Fairmount, and Brewerytown.
Neighborhood: Northern Liberties
Threatened Building Type: Workshops, factories, warehouses, garages
Dynamic: Much of the new construction in Northern Liberties was initially built on the neighborhood’s many vacant lots. As that supply dwindled, developers began purchasing and demolishing industrial buildings, some of which were still being used for light manufacturing, as was the case of the Pearl-Pressman Liberty printing company building at 5th and Popular. Although most buildings of this type have now been torn down or rehabbed, there are still several that remain, including Aircon Filter Company on Green Street and the former Fishtown Star building on 3rd Street and Girard Avenue. Now that so little developable land remains, former industrial buildings successfully repurposed a decade or two ago may also become vulnerable to demolition and more valuable for the large parcels they occupy.
Neighborhood: Center City
Threatened Building Type: Various
Dynamic: In most neighborhoods, a building that is handsome, historic, occupied, and in good condition would never be considered for demolition. Unfortunately, that is no longer true in highly desirable neighborhoods, and especially Center City, where land is worth the most. The critical thing for policymakers to consider isn’t so much the threat to a particular size or type of building, but rather the tremendous development pressure that exists across the board, which should give their efforts greater urgency. The recent examples above–and Jewelers Row, which remains endangered–show that no buildings in Center City can be assumed safe from demolition unless they are listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.
Peter Woodall is the co-editor of Hidden City Daily. He is a graduate of the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, and a former newspaper reporter with the Biloxi Sun Herald and the Sacramento Bee. He worked as a producer for Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane and wrote a column about neighborhood bars for PhiladelphiaWeekly.com.