The National Trust for Historic Preservation is thrilled to announce our newest National Treasure, the Historic Neighborhoods of Philadelphia. In this complex and deeply historic American city, the Trust is furthering our commitment to defining the role of older buildings and blocks in advancing more inclusive, vibrant, diverse, and resilient cities through our ReUrbanism initiative. We are already advancing this work in Miami, Louisville, and Detroit by designing supportive policies, creating funding tools, and building community backing for building reuse. We are excited to add the extraordinary city of Philadelphia to the list.
For this effort we will be working in partnership with the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, the city’s historic commission, and others on Philadelphia Mayor James Kenney’s newly formed Historic Preservation Task Force. Over the next 18 months, the National Trust, in collaboration with our local partners, will encourage city leaders, developers, and advocates to adopt new tools and strategies that advance the rehabilitation and reuse of older and historic buildings at a transformational scale.
Philadelphia is the largest city in Pennsylvania and the fifth-most populous in the United States. Within the city’s 142 square miles, there are 490,000 buildings that date from the 17th century through recent times. Nearly 70 percent of them were built in or before 1945, and more than 85 percent are at least 50 years old. This extensive and varied collection of architectural resources is distributed among the city’s distinct neighborhoods, each with its own identity, history, and building reuse challenges. Despite this wealth of historic fabric, the city lags behind its counterparts in locally designated historic districts and sites. The Philadelphia Register of Historic Places includes 15 historic districts and 3,371 individually designated resources—just more than 2 percent of the city’s building stock. Approximately 4 percent of the buildings are listed, individually or within districts, on the National Register of Historic Places. These percentages are lower than in many other cities, especially in the eastern United States.
Today Philadelphia is at a tipping point. Decades of decline that ended only recently have resulted in a population loss of 22 percent between the mid-1950s and early 2000s. However, over the last nine years, the city has seen slow but steady population growth, made up mostly of immigrants and younger residents. Its economy is also improving, especially in sectors like health and education. These have attracted new investment but also intense development pressure and widespread demolition. This is taking place in many of the most historic and increasingly desirable neighborhoods—such as City Center, Graduate Hospital, and Northern Liberties—causing displacement and reducing the availability of affordable housing. While some districts are experiencing this intense hot market pressure, in many cases accompanied by a “renaissance,” huge swaths of the city are in deep poverty, with high levels of abandonment and vacancy. Neighborhoods to the north and west of Center City contain large numbers of abandoned rowhouses, schools, churches, factories, and small commercial structures. There are more than 35,000 vacant parcels in Philadelphia, including 14,000 empty buildings.
As identified in the Preservation Green Lab’s 2014 Retrofitting Philadelphia report, obstacles to reuse in these high-vacancy areas include high construction and labor costs; weak market conditions and low rents; difficulty in acquiring long-abandoned structures; lack of sufficient incentives for affordable housing and smaller commercial projects; and the complexity and cost of meeting zoning, building, and energy codes. Philadelphia is frequently described as having "Baltimore rents with New York City construction costs." Whether in hot or cold markets, there are few tools and incentives available that would encourage and incentivize owners, developers, city leaders, and advocates to pursue rehabilitation and reuse.
Without improvement to the city’s preservation efforts, many parts will remain vulnerable to either disinvestment and abandonment or development pressure. Through our participation in Mayor Kenney’s Preservation Task Force, the National Trust will provide technical expertise—including proven and innovative tools, development incentives, and national best practices—to address these issues directly and help make Philadelphia an innovator and leader in historic preservation and building reuse.
Seri Worden is a senior field officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.