Retrofitting Philadelphia: New Report from the Preservation Green Lab

By Special Contributor posted 09-23-2014 16:12

By Jim Lindberg and Mike Powe

Today, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Preservation Green Lab released Retrofitting Philadelphia: The Partnership for Building Reuse. The most recent in a series of studies that look at the barriers to building reuse as a tool for economic growth in our towns and cities, Retrofitting Philadelphia focuses on the problems and opportunities that are unique to Philadelphia—a city with a large number of vacant or underutilized older buildings. This study provides practical solutions to help property owners and investors repurpose more older buildings in diverse neighborhoods across Philadelphia.

The study came out of a new initiative, the Partnership for Building Reuse, which is a joint effort between the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Urban Land Institute. The goal of the partnership is to analyze demolition and development trends and develop strategies to foster building reuse in U.S. cities, bringing together community groups, real estate developers, and civic leaders around the common goal of making it easier to reuse and retrofit existing buildings using a market-driven approach.

Working with the ULI Philadelphia District Council, as well as the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, the Green Lab engaged more than 40 land-use professionals, historic preservation advocates, community development practitioners, green building leaders, and city staff to help identify opportunities and develop recommendations for how to increase reuse and revitalization across the city.

The report comes at a time when, after decades of decline, America’s cities are making a comeback. Philadelphia is one of best places in the nation to find evidence of this turnaround. Center City and many nearby neighborhoods are filling with new residents, businesses, and restaurants. Developers are retrofitting long-vacant buildings for new apartments, condominiums, and hotels. Residents are fixing up their homes. All of these signs point to continued revitalization in Philadelphia. Yet other areas of the city continue to struggle. Abandoned buildings, vacant blocks, declining population, and a lack of employment still characterize many neighborhoods.

In its research, the Preservation Green Lab looked into the connections between the vitality of the city’s neighborhoods and the character of the city’s existing building stock. Much like its previous research, the Green Lab found that Philadelphia’s older, smaller buildings contribute in key ways to the vitality of the city. For example:
  • The creative economy thrives in older neighborhoods. There is an average of 4.6 jobs in creative industries in areas of the city characterized by older, smaller, mixed-vintage blocks, compared to an average of 2.9 jobs in areas with mostly larger, newer buildings.
  • Young people love old buildings. The average median age of residents in areas of the city characterized by older, smaller buildings is 35.6 years, compared to 41.2 years in areas with dominated by larger, newer buildings.
  •  Old buildings attract good restaurants. Nearly 64 percent of Philadelphia Magazine’s 2013 “Top 50 Restaurants” and “Top 50 Bars” are located in buildings constructed before 1920, well above the citywide total of 50 percent of commercial businesses located in buildings of that vintage.

Working with local practitioners, the Green Lab also developed an analytical tool to identify areas of the city that have not yet benefitted from reuse and revitalization, but have high potential for near-term success (see map below).


The red grid squares shown on this map are areas of high opportunity for successful building reuse, according to a new methodology developed as part of the Partnership for Building Reuse. The map shows several concentrations of high opportunity grid squares outside of Center City. These are areas to consider for focused efforts to promote and assist market-driven building reuse.

To encourage building reuse in these areas and other neighborhoods citywide, local partners identified obstacles that make building reuse challenging—including market, financial, technical and regulatory barriers. These include:

  • High construction costs, including high labor costs
  • Weak market conditions and low rents in many areas
  • Difficulty in acquiring long-abandoned structures
  • Lack of sufficient incentives for affordable housing and smaller commercial projects
  • Complexity and cost of meeting zoning, building, and energy codes, especially for smaller projects

Taking into account these and other barriers, the report includes three key strategies to optimize building reuse in Philadelphia over the next one to three years:

  1. Add building reuse to the 2015 Philadelphia political agenda. Participants in the Partnership recommended establishing a coalition of organizations to promote building reuse as an important citywide issue and seeking support among candidates for key policies, including an extension of the property tax abatement in challenged neighborhoods; increased city staffing for the Department of Licenses & Inspections, Planning Commission, and Historical Commission; and funding for a citywide historic resources survey.

  2. Extend the benefits of building reuse and community revitalization to more areas of the city. The Partnership advised fostering market-driven investment in neighborhoods positioned for near-term success. Technical assistance should be directed to selected areas of opportunity to increase use of the tax abatement incentives for rehabilitation. The City of Philadelphia should consider creating adaptive-use innovation zones to test creative approaches to common zoning, building code, and energy code issues in these areas, and should adopt successful approaches into citywide policies.

  3. Expand historic preservation tools and incentives for building reuse. The team suggested launching a citywide historic resources survey to identify additional areas that could benefit from local, state, and national historic preservation programs. Other recommendations include increasing the number of National Register-listed districts to facilitate greater use of federal rehabilitation tax incentives, and supporting creation of a new citywide revolving fund to assist key reuse projects.
The Partnership for Building Reuse is also focusing its attention on Baltimore, and the Green Lab plans to release analysis and recommendations for that city in November. The Partnership will expand to Chicago and Louisville later this fall. A national convening and publication summarizing the lessons learned through the Partnership for Building Reuse is planned for 2016.

Based in Denver, James Lindberg is planning director for the National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab.

Mike Powe is the senior research manager at the Seattle-based National Trust Preservation Green Lab.

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