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Conservation Districts as an Alternative to Historic Districts: Viable Planning Tools for Maintaining the Character of Older Neighborhoods 

12-09-2015 17:35

When confronted with yet another proposed demolition of a historic building, Philadelphia preservationists often grumble that the entire Center City, the approximately twenty-five blocks from the banks of the Delaware River to the banks of the Schuylkill River, should be designated as a local historic district to put an end to the seemingly constant preservation battles. While local historic-district designation would help to protect the rich array of historic resources found throughout Philadelphia neighborhoods, such extensive designation is neither practical nor prudent at this time for financial, political, and preservation planning reasons. Historic designation, however, is no longer the only option available to communities wishing to preserve and maintain their older neighborhoods. Many are turning to such planning alternatives as conservation ordinances, which seek to conserve and maintain the existing character of buildings, using a lesser degree of regulation than is embodied in historic preservation laws.

The Preservation Coalition of Greater Philadelphia is a historic preservation nonprofit organization founded in 1977 to be an advocate for historic buildings and neighborhoods. Through its work in many of Philadelphia`s older neighborhoods, the coalition came to realize that in spite of the fact that Philadelphia`s historic preservation ordinance has long been recognized as a strong and comprehensive preservation tool, the existing regulatory programs were often inadequate to maintain the character and buildings in many of Philadelphia`s older neighborhoods. While much of the city is of historic-district quality, many other older, distinctive neighborhoods lack the requisite historical and architectural significance of a local historic district. At a time when new construction provides less than three percent of the nation`s housing stock annually, the preservation of these older, stable neighborhoods also holds tremendous potential to help meet the pressing housing needs of many Philadelphians, especially low- to moderate-income residents.

It was with the often-considered incompatible goals of historic preservation and affordable housing that the preservation coalition undertook the challenging project of creating a viable Neighborhood Conservation District program for Philadelphia in 1990. This article will explore in general terms the use of conservation programs as an alternative to traditional preservation planning tools for meeting the needs of older neighborhoods with varying degrees of significance, and describe how a neighborhood conservation program was developed to meet the specific challenges of Philadelphia.

The first two phases of the Neighborhood Conservation District project took two years. Funding was provided by the National Trust for Historic Preservation`s Critical Issues Fund, Preservation Pennsylvania`s Philadelphia Intervention Fund, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. The Preservation Coalition staff began the project by conducting research into existing conservation ordinances in cities around the country; this work resulted in a research report produced in June 1991. The second part of the project was a collaboration between John Milner Associates, Philadelphia-based architecture and planning consultants, and the preservation coalition to create a model neighborhood conservation district ordinance, accompanying regulatory program, and design guidelines for Philadelphia. The second phase of the project was completed in December 1992. The third phase is the introduction and implementation of a Neighborhood Conservation District program in the Point Breeze neighborhood, an area that was chosen as the model for this program.

The preservation coalition is currently operating the Philadelphia Neighborhood Conservation District program on a voluntary basis; the city of Philadelphia has not yet adopted this program as its own. It is hoped that the city will pass a neighborhood conservation ordinance in the future, and the program will benefit neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia.


Research into several existing architectural and building conservation programs across the country revealed, not surprisingly, a diversity in the goals and approaches to conservation. Conservation programs from the following communities were analyzed: Atlanta, Georgia; Boston, Massachusetts; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Dallas, Texas; Lincoln, Nebraska; Memphis, Tennessee; Omaha, Nebraska; Phoenix, Arizona; Portland, Oregon; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Roanoke, Virginia. (See chart on Page 10) The major provisions of these conservation ordinances are discussed below:

Date Enacted  The majority of the conservation programs investigated were enacted during the 1980s. Many municipalities, at this point, had experienced several years of administering their historic preservation ordinances and were in a position to assess their effectiveness. These cities turned to conservation ordinances as an alternative method to meet needs not sufficiently addressed by historic regulation.

Administering Agency  Of the twelve conservation programs studied, six were administered by the local historical agency; the remaining six were located in the local planning or zoning agency. The cities with conservation programs administered by their planning or zoning agency generally were municipalities without a separate historical agency. While the placement of the conservation program may at first glance seem to be incidental, location appears to be an important factor in determining the goals and criteria of the program. In cities in which the historical agency administers the conservation program, the goals of the program generally include a degree of historic preservation and at least some of the conservation district selection criteria are similar to those for local historic districts. In municipalities where the planning or zoning agency administers the conservation program, while the goals may include retaining the character of the area, such additional factors as maintenance, stabilization, and enhancing property values are often prominently stated.

Activities Regulated  New construction and demolition are the most frequently regulated activities in the conservation programs studied. Alterations and additions to existing buildings are generally regulated in those cities in which the conservation ordinance is administered by the local historical agency, and when goals of the program include a degree of historic preservation.

Selection Criteria  The criteria used to designate an area as a conservation district varied widely among the municipalities studied. While some programs consider conservation-district status to be merely a degree of historic-district status with similar criteria as those used to select historic districts, others focus on areas of less historical significance or take factors unrelated to age or character into consideration. The criteria generally reflect whether a conservation program is intended to preserve the historic character or a specific neighborhood; to protect a general visual or neighborhood character; to provide specific public support and incentives for neighborhood revitalization; or to provide a combination of the above.

Design Guidelines  Eight of the twelve conservation programs studied included written and/or visual architectural design guidelines for some of the activities regulated in their conservation ordinances. Design guidelines were handled in two different ways--either by allowing separate standards to be created for each conservation district, or by requiring that uniform standards be implemented for all conservation districts in the municipality.


Having examined conservation district programs nationally, the Coalition then began to develop a conservation program tailored to the needs of Philly and to create conservation design guidelines for a model Philly Neighborhood Conservation District. Working closely with John Milner Associates and a local advisory panel, the Coalition sought to design a neighborhood program tailored to the needs of Philadelphia.

As discussed earlier, conservation districts around the country varied widely in their goals and purposes. The purpose of proposing conservation districts in Philadelphia was to satisfy the need for a neighborhood program that would maintain and conserve the character-defining streetscapes of many older neighborhoods, and would help to preserve the supply of affordable housing for the current residents. This is not intended to replace the Philadelphia historic preservation ordinance or any related programs, but rather to offer an alternative to many older areas that have experienced some deterioration, demolition, or incompatible alterations. A key component of the success of this program will be community support--conservation districts as proposed below will not succeed unless a community actively supports this program..

At the outset, the following goals were established for the Philadelphia Neighborhood Conservation District program:

  1. To provide neighborhood residents, particularly in low- and low-to-moderate income neighborhoods, with resources and guidance to assist in the conservation of the physical fabric and character of the affordable housing stock of those neighborhoods.
  2. To develop educational materials with which residents can increase their understanding of the components that contribute to the physical character of their neighborhood`s housing stock, as well as their understanding of the available regulatory mechanisms that can protect that character.
  3. To develop incentives for residents in the implementation of specific conservation measures.
  4. To provide the City of Philadelphia with additional strategies to assist eligible neighborhoods whose residents are interested in conserving their neighborhood`s physical character.

Having established these goals, the components of the several conservation programs analyzed in phase one were reviewed for their relevance; existing city programs were evaluated and city officials involved in administering preservation, planning, and housing programs were interviewed. The following issues were identified as key in crafting a program that would successfully meet the specific goals set for the Philadelphia Neighborhood Conservation District program:

  • Selection Criteria: On what basis would neighborhoods be selected for eligibility for the program? Of what relevance are factors associated with Philadelphia historic districts, such as architectural significance, age, integrity? Of what relevance are factors not associated with historic districts, such as vacancy rates and income levels?
  • Consent: What level of owner and/or resident consent is desirable/necessary for the neighborhood conservation district? How is consent obtained? Is the consent of nonresidential property owners required?
  • Administration: How and by whom is a neighborhood nominated and designated as a Neighborhood Conservation District? Once designated, what activities can be regulated? What penalties can be assessed for work not in conformance with design guidelines?
  • Incentives: Can a package of incentives be developed that is easily understood and administered? How important are incentives to the success of the program?
  • Relationship to Existing Programs: To what extent can existing programs incorporate the goals of the Neighborhood Conservation District? And, conversely, to what extent might the goals of the Neighborhood Conservation District contradict or erode those existing programs?

These issues were all addressed and resolved in a manner that ensures the program`s best chance for success in Philadelphia. Any municipality considering its own conservation program would have to conduct its own evaluation of the issues. The proposed Philadelphia Neighborhood Conservation District program follows:

Selection Criteria

A neighborhood may be designated as a Neighborhood Conservation District if it satisfies Qualitative Criteria #1, #2 and #3, and if it meets the remaining selection criteria substantially, taken as a whole.

Qualitative Criteria

  1. Neighborhood Participation:
    The neighborhood must have a demonstrable desire to participate in the program. The following factors are suggested for consideration: longevity, identifiable boundaries, regular election of officers and board members, existing bylaws and regularly scheduled meetings, a record of consistent attendance and participation in public hearings related to the neighborhood (e.g., zoning hearings).
  2. Consistency of Visual Character:
    The neighborhood must have a consistent and definable physical character.
  3. Not Eligible as Local Historic District:
    The Neighborhood Conservation District must not satisfy the criteria for designation as a local historic district.
  4. Condition of Building:
    The Neighborhood Conservation District must be located in a neighborhood in which the preponderance of buildings are in good condition.
  5. Consistency of Building Types:
    The housing stock within the Neighborhood Conservation District must be composed of consistent building types--e.g., row houses, duplexes, etc.

Quantitative Criteria

  1. Zoning and Use Criteria:
    A minimum of eighty percent of the buildings within a Neighborhood Conservation District must have an "R" (residential) zoning classification. The Neighborhood Conservation District must be situated in a neighborhood in which the height of existing residential buildings conforms to the existing zoning requirements.
  2. Occupancy Criteria:
    A Neighborhood Conservation District must have a minimum of eighty percent occupied residential buildings, sixty percent owner-occupied residential buildings, and no more than fifteen percent of vacant residential lots.
  3. Size Criteria:
    The Neighborhood Conservation District must encompass an area of no fewer than twenty square blocks and no more than eighty square blocks.
  4. Median Income Criteria:
    The Neighborhood Conservation District must be located within low- or low-to-moderate-income tracts of the city.
  5. Owner Support:
    More than forty percent of residential property owners and more than sixty percent of residential property owners who occupy their property within the Neighborhood Conservation District must sign a petition affirming their willingness to participate in the program.
  6. Age Criteria:
    A minimum of eighty percent of the residential buildings within the Neighborhood Conservation District must be at least forty years old.


A Neighborhood Conservation District program that assists a neighborhood to understand and protect its physical character may in fact be its own incentive for a neighborhood that wants the program. An effective incentives package, however, will help to provide the financial resources and technical assistance to help make the program a success. The proposed Philadelphia Neighborhood Conservation District program includes the following incentives:

  • The Neighborhood Conservation District staff, which will administer the program and serve as a liaison between the community and city agencies.
  • A Neighborhood Conservation District revolving fund, which will provide low-interest loans or, depending on available funding, outright grants for use on those instances in which the design guidelines suggest a treatment that is more costly than an alternative that those guidelines discourage.
  • Development of design guidelines. The Neighborhood Conservation District program will incorporate two levels of design guidelines. Broad-based threshold design guidelines will apply consistently and equally to all Neighborhood Conservation Districts within the city. Satisfaction of the threshold design guidelines will be necessary in order to grant a building permit to a project affecting a residential property within a Conservation District. The threshold guidelines will be supplemented by neighborhood-specific supplemental design guidelines, the satisfaction of which will allow the applicant to receive financial incentives.
  • Community-based conservation workshops. The program will include regularly scheduled workshops to assist residents of the conservation district in learning about the history of their neighborhood, how to perform routine maintenance on their homes, and about additional city programs that may be available to assist them.


The administration of the Neighborhood Conservation District program has been developed in a way that attempts to make the best use of the existing administrative structures in Philadelphia government. Responsibility for administering the program would be divided between the Philadelphia Office of Housing and Community Development and the Department of Licenses and Inspection. The Philadelphia Historical Commission has not been given authority over this proposed conservation district program because this program is not intended to replace or compete with historic districts in the city. Conservation districts in Philadelphia should be viewed as alternatives to existing preservation programs to conserve older neighborhoods not eligible for historic-district status. Any community that develops its own conservation program should take into consideration the goals and existing administrative structure in determining how the program should be administered.

The overall administrative oversight of the Neighborhood Conservation District program will be the responsibility of the Neighborhood Conservation District Review Board, a body of nine members appointed by the mayor and representing related city agencies and neighborhood groups. The program will be administered by two staff people, the Neighborhood Conservation District Examiner and the Neighborhood Conservation District Coordinator. The coordinator will be located within the city`s Office of Housing and Community Development, and will assist neighborhoods with the designation process, work with the neighborhood in creating neighborhood-specific design guidelines, offer technical assistance to the district`s residents on design review and maintenance issues, and organize the educational workshops in the district. The examiner will be located within the city`s Office of Licenses and Inspections, and will generally administer the regulatory portion of the program, including review of building-permit applications for alterations, new construction, and demolition within the district.

A neighborhood can be nominated for Neighborhood Conservation District status only by the community itself, acting through a viable neighborhood association. The designation process includes ample opportunity for public notification and opportunities for public comment.

The only activity that will be officially regulated through the proposed conservation-district program is alteration. New construction, while not regulated, will be reviewed by the board; new construction guidelines will also be included in the neighborhood-specific guidelines provided to the district.


Conservation programs are viable planning tools for communities looking for an alternative to traditional historic districts to help maintain the character and buildings of older neighborhoods. While it is too early to predict the success of such a program in Philadelphia, similar conservation programs have effectively existed in other cities for several years. As communities better define their needs and goals for older neighborhoods, and as residents begin to become more involved in determining their neighborhood`s future, the menu of preservation and planning options available will continue to broaden beyond traditional preservation controls.


This report results from a collaboration between The Preservation Coalition of Greater Philadelphia and John Milner Associates. The preparation of The Philadelphia Neighborhood Conservation District A Model Program was supported by The National Trust for Historic Preservation`s Critical Issues Fund, Preservation Pennsylvania`s Philadelphia Intervention Fund, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

The project was accomplished with the invaluable assistance of the Advisory Board which The Preservation Coalition of Greater Philadelphia assembled for the project The Members of the Advisory Board were as follows:

Brenda Barrett - Director, Bureau for Historic Preservation, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg, PA.

James Brown IV - President, Parkside Historic Preservation Corporation, Philadelphia, PA.

Dr David DeLong - Chairman, Graduate Program in Historic Preservation, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Grace Cary - Executive Director, Preservation Pennsylvania, Lancaster, PA.

Bridget Hartman - Program Manager, Critical Issues Fund National Trust for Historic Preservation, Washington, D. C.

Karen Jessup - Preservation Planner; Professor of History Preservation, Boston University, Boston, MA and Roger Williams College, Providence, RI.

Barbara Kaplan - Executive Director, Philadelphia City Planning Commission, Philadelphia, PA.

Howard Kittell - Executive Director, The Preservation Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA.

Janet Klein - Board of Directors, The Preservation Coalition of Greater Philadelphia; Consultant, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Philadelphia, PA.

Dr. Richard Tyler - Historic Preservation Officer, City of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA.

Scott Wilds - Executive Assistant to the Director, Office of Housing and Community Development, City of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA.

Patricia Wilson - Director, Mid-Atlantic Regional Office, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Philadelphia, PA.

Publication Date: September/October 1993



Author(s):Deborah Marquis Kelly & Jennifer Goodman

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