Saturday, February 24, 2007

Assault on Philly's Waterfront Architecture

Cities are rarely destroyed in one fell swoop (with the notable exception of New Orleans). It happens incrementally, so you hardly notice. One building goes down. Then another. Until one day you realize that a group of buildings as familiar as an old sweater is gone, and the land they occupied is being used to park cars. That's what happened to the north side of Front and Walnut Streets in Old City, across from the Sheraton Hotel. The block, which rose up in Philadelphia's 19th Century shipbuilding heyday and was a major gateway to Penn's Landing, survived nearly intact until 1993 , when the Rendell Administration okayed a run of demolition orders. The result is that Bookbinders is the only historic building standing on the block today.

Why bring up the story of Front and Walnut now? Because the owners of a similar group of historic, Greek Revival waterfront-era buildings at Front and Chestnut Streets (above) are now trying to clear that important intersection in much the same way. The Spear brothers, who also own the Front Street parking lot just north of Chestnut Street, will ask the city Historical Commission on Wednesday, at 11 a.m., for permission to tear down the two early 19th Century buildings pictured here, 48 and 50 S. Front Street, as well as one around the corner at 103 Chestnut. If they get their way, they'll have destroyed one of the last intact Front Street intersections, and wiped out yet another vestige of Philadelphia's maritime heritage. Right now, the 100 block of Chestnut Street, between Front and Second, offers a complete, untouched set of 19th Century commercial architecture. Jon Farnham, at the Historical Commission, says the node is essentially one of the oldest commercial corners in the city. But once the intersection goes, who know what will follow. The Spears also own 107 Chestnut Street, but not 105.

Unfortunately, the Spears, who bought the historically designated buildings two years ago, and their previous owner, Gagan Lakmna, of CREI, let them fall into ruin. The three structures were declared imminently dangerous last week. Although an independent engineering assessment by Keast & Hood maintains that they're easily salvageable, the Spears argue that the costs would be prohibitive. They're claiming financial hardship as grounds for the demolition of the buildings, which are part of the Old City historic district. How ironic that, even as Penn Praxis is struggling to bring new life to the Delaware waterfront, some owners still don't realize the vaule of the city's surviving maritime architecture.

The financial hardship claim was what made the clearance possible at Front and Walnut in 1993. The Taxin family, which owned Bookbinders, had been fighting with the city for years over permission to raze the Elisha Webb Chandelry at 136 S. Front Street, an 1835 building that had provided support services to the waterfront. But in 1993, within months of taking office and appointing Wayne Spilove head of the Historical Commission, Rendell reversed city policy and allowed the demolition permit to go through. The buildings at 115 and 117 Walnut came down a few months later, in 1994. The destruction of the block was completed in 1995 with demolition orders for 101, 103, 107 and 109 Walnut. The plague soon spread north, when the owners of 110-112 S. Front Street also won a demo order.

That address is now the home of the Beaumont condos, a high-rise that was jammed so awkwardly onto the narrow site that its entire north side is an unrelenting wall of concrete. Lakhmna's CREI group is putting up a similar, 12-story blank-walled high-rise at the corner of Front and Walnut - although that project is moving so slowly you have to wonder if the construction is being done by a lone workman. The rest of the block remains a vast surface parking lot. If the buildings at Front and Chestnut go down, will that be their fate, too?
Fortunately, this isn't 1993 or Spilove's historical commission. David Perri, the city's chief code engineer and the No. 2 guy at the Department of Licenses and Inspections, said he intends to fight the Spears' demolition effort any way he can. He countered their request by issuing a citation for demolition by neglect, which carries a $300-a-day fine. "We want those buildings saved," Perri told me in no uncertain terms . "They’re important buildings. They're the soul of this city. People who own them have to understand that." I think that series of sentences may be the most unequivocal statement I have ever heard uttered from the mouth of a city official. "It's absolutely critical that they be saved," Perri added. "One of the reasons Old City so hot, is because of these historical buildings like these. From the engineering reports I've read, I believe they can be saved and put back into service."

Rich Thom, who heads Old City Civic's zoning committee said he was shocked to hear of the Spears demolition request. What's at stake, he said, is"the face of 19th Century Philadelphia."
The fight to save that great shipbuilding era begins Wednesday.


Blogger Blake said...

Save These Buildings!

I'm not familiar enough with the Old City landscape of the early '90s to criticize the demolition orders for the aforementioned Walnut St site. But Old City is undeniably hot, and should fight to preserve all the remaining historic architecture that has remained. Sure theres still a market for high end modern condos in that tight pocket, but it boggles my mind that the busting tourism industry at 6th and Market is so ofter overlooked when development is undertaken in Old City. Condos that fit the fabric of historic Old City make for a much better setting anyway (think St James w/an actual desire to preserve facades instead of "just doing it b/c we were forced to").

Front St's neglect was brought up at Penn Praxis's forum a couple weeks ago. Its clearly a hindrance in drawing people to the river. The obvious response is that its because of 95, and to me thats a defeatist's attitude. Maybe the city could do something about the useless perpendicular parking on the east side of front b/w markent and chestnut. Anything that shielded 95 would be useful, how about closing the street all together!

12:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Demolition by neglect is a serious problem throughout Old City, as any pedestrian can see. Suspicious fires are another issue. Something has to be done fast to retain the fabric on certain blocks. The owners of these buildings should be identified and demonized by name.

12:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stop development Now!

Keep Philadelphia static and depressed!

Save everything!

Only build after asking everyone's opinion! Especially those against the project!

This has kept Philadelphia growing in the 70's 80's and 90's while cities like NYC fell into ruin.

Look at NYC now...what a failure. They should admire our ability to stop growth at all costs!

2:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, NYC has had tremendous growth, but it also has almost 100 historic districts, while Philadelphia has only 10.

Why is it that some people see ANY development as good regardless if it is sensitive to the surrounding neighborhood or preserves our historic buildings? Old City is so wonderful because of the eclectic mix of buildings, most of which date to the early 19th century.

The developer owns a very large parking lot next door - no one is saying that they can't build on that. Philadelphia should be allowed to protect its historic buildings without being attacked as NIMBYs. There are plenty of vacant/parking lots for developers to use.

4:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the tragedy is the process of developing the site. sounds like someone has a plan but doesn't want to share it or just wants a clean slate to be declared before a 700' tower is proposed. i'm not entirely sold on preserving the site at the expense of undermining a decent developement but then who determines what is decent. if there is a plan it should be presented now before anyone jumps the shark and demos with an itchy trigger finger. from there i would hope the existing can be incorporated not just applied.

anyone walked down 2nd st between market and chestnut during daylight hours? is it preserved? if so it's a sad comentary.

5:25 PM  
Anonymous Davis said...

I was at a meeting of the historical commission when the developer of another Front Street site ws making a presentation. In the course of it he explained that although he had "wanted" to save the historic building, it was in danger of collapse and could not be saved. It was pointed out that this was because HE had demolished the adjoining historic building illegally and undermined the foundations.

No matter, the commission approved the plan to build something they had expressly forbidden 6 months before.

It's the same sad tale over and over again. It's not about development, but about standards for development.

It's hard to have any real hope for this city.

6:11 PM  
Anonymous Stephen Maczko said...

I see a much more serious problem here than the one Inga Safron points out: an ‘Assault’—Inga’s word—on Philly’s waterfront by individual bad boys in the developer community.

Any and all Philadelphia preservationists have known for a long time—since at least the early 90s, by Inga’s account—that the point would come, absent any other intervention, that these properties would be threatened. And that’s where we are today.

Is it really credible for Rich Thom, an architect and head of the Old City zoning committee, to be shocked at this turn of events? Where has Mr. Thom been for the last 15 years?

The real question here is why over the years the disciples of preservation have never developed a proactive program to find the required resources that might have headed off the destruction of our architectural patrimony.

Development companies are not, by their very nature, capable of promoting historical preservation.

For preservationists to scapegoat developers in this way is outrageous; the general public should not let that happen, without giving equal attention to the real, long-term failures of preservationists,

Demonize by name? Stop development now? I got a better, 19th century slogan: Stop capitalism now. Get real. Unless you are willing to develop a long tern strategy that really works to both preserve AND promote economic growth at the same time, you’re just whistling in the wind, my friend.

6:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

there's no failure by preservationists here! Developers bought buildings that were designated as historic or within a historic district. If they don't want to maintain them, they shouldn't have bought them, or should've put them up for sale.

6:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To put it another way, NOT demolishing historic buildings IS THE LAW!

You don't have a right to exclude blacks or Catholics from your business.
You don't have a right to fail to comply with fire and safety codes.
And, you don't have the right to destroy legally protected buildings!

6:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


These developers are buying protected properties at a price that reflects the legal restrictions. Then they try to get the legal restrictions loosened up so they can get a windfall.

Cry no tears for the developer who purchases a property and then can't get the law changed. They get exactly what they pay for -- and that's good. Hardship? Ha!

10:15 PM  
Anonymous Mitch Deighan said...

Before the Elisha Webb debacle in the early '80s, the demolition-focus was on the James McCrae Houses, 108-10 Sansom Street, just west of Front Street. Bookbinder's was hell bent to knock them down, and did, despite the buildings being listed on the Historic American Buildings Survey. But the McCrea Houses were so beautiful!

5:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That corner has been neglected since paul rimmier passed away. Numerous restaurants have tried and failed at 103. The inside is cool but that location cannot survive as a restaurant/bar. Time for something new.

11:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are many viable uses, retail, restaurant, residential, etc. just as there are for all the other legally protected historic buildings in Philadelphia.

What we have here is an owner who wants to "cash in" and build an ugly bigger building instead.

The City should take a lesson from a former first lady and "Just say no"

7:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a one-sided article typical of Inga Saffron. This city and its media have shamefully abdicated any respect for property rights and has become a city which punishes development with an outrageous and ridiculous bureaucracy. Historic preservation is an honorable goal to be sure, but it cannot force a property owner into a massive loss, which this owner is probably alleging. Historic preservation must also balance the actual historic signficance of the property (does this property have any signficance other than its location?) with the right of the property owner to use and enjoy his property as he sees fit (remember that quaint concept?-its in the constitution). And Ms. Saffron and the bureaucrats must remember that there are two sides to every story, and to prejudge an issue without hearing from the other side is poor journalism, and a knee-jerk reaction. Let's hear from the owners and then make a professional judgment that properly balances the owners' rights with the principles of historic preservation.

11:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

11:03 AM Anon:
you don't have the slightest clue as why Historic buildings are important to cities around the world! And, you are clueless about the process! The significance of these buildings was already determined in detail by the City Historical Commission.

Yes, I know, maybe you respect the historic importance of say Independence Hall. But, in general, your views are opposite of the law.

12:34 PM  
Anonymous Joseph said...

why does it feel like the majority of real estate/developer/whatever people hate old buildings :/ they're so COOL compared to the prefab crap that goes up now (Symphony House anyone?). Philadelphia has a ton of empty lots in center city alone. It will never cease to boggle my mind that people buy old cool buildings and want to knock them down. And then look at what happens. How about that empty lot on Samson around Rittenhouse Square? Didn't Spilove or someone knock down some buildings years ago to build some crappy parking thing, and even that didn't get built? You have to have a mix of old and new in cities. How much longer before we run out of old?

12:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

in reply to are soooo right. The old buildings are faaaaaar more interesting than utter garbage built today. I don't live in Philly, but have visited several times. It has so much more character than say, Tampa. Our downtown is completely lifeless. There aren't any, and I mean any, pedestrians on the sidewalks ever. They're building new condo towers, but there's nothing at street level. All the towers seem to be of the same ilk....plop a tower on a big garage. At street level, there's alot of blank walls and garage access and exits. interesting. I wouldn't buy a unit in a dead downtown with nothing going on. But compare that to Old City, where all those great old buildings have been turned into everything under the sun. I love that.

7:00 PM  
Anonymous Fante said...

Inga and Ingbots seem to have a love affair with empty rotting buildings. They don’t offer solutions, just complaints.

Besides that, I wait for the day when Inga and Ingbots can change the discussion to something a little more meaty than: "Developers = Bad/Preservationists = Good." Or "Developers = Spawn of Satan/Preservations = a thousand angels dancing on a pin."

10:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

right, Fante, we can start with Independence Hall, what a drag to maintain it every year.

(since some of the anti-preservationists seem so un-educated and un-familiar with cities everywhere else, I will add that I am not serious).

1:38 PM  
Anonymous Rare Optimist said...

"It's hard to have any real hope for this city." WAAAAAAAAH!

The solution lies in good planning coordination between the city, developers, and other interests (preservationists, etc)...and believe-it-or-not, this IS HAPPENING more and more in this city. Lessons have been learned! If the standards are slow in coming that may not be a bad thing...cities are living/evolving entities and not every problem with be solved with a new code or standard practice. A feasible plan nurtured by community input can preserve our unique urban fabric while moving us successfully in to the future.

We can have it both ways...modern infill and preservation side-by-side...and Philadelphia is heading that direction. There are examples all around Old City. A few more buildings may be lost here and there, but lets remember that 18th-century blocks were once demolished to make way for the 19th-century blocks we are discussing here.

Developers are not the enemy.

The city is not clueless.

Property-rights are not being trampled.

The notion that we can save every building is ridiculous, and many historic do not need to be saved. What needs to be saved is the FABRIC of the neighborhood. This means rebuilding the surface parking lots. If we can get that done in a way that saves every building on the block, then everybody wins. If not, then we need to just keep the discourse positive and encourage property owners in the area to consider more options.

Comparisons to NYC or cities in Europe are equally ridiculous. Philadelphia is not New York...but it is not Tampa either. Both are good things.

The negative attitude of these comments is obnoxious and pretty tired. Move to Texas and shut up.

10:34 PM  
Blogger Marc said...

"Why can't developers see the beauty in these buildings" and "These old building are much cooler then the new ones going up"...
Come on people this is exactly why this city will never grow! It is so irritating to listen to you people. Open your eyes the building in question here is very plain and ugly, (as is the building behind the Beaumont condos.) But hey let's just leave them up because they are old. I would much rather look at the comcast center, the st james, the cira center then any of these old decrypted structures you claim to be historical sites. (The only thing historical about them is that they are old.) People, time moves on and things change. Architecture is on of those things and buildings don't last forever. So let's keep moving forward and improving the city instead of standing in cement. I live a block away and have wondered for years when they are going to knock that building down and put up something to reenergize the corner.
We are a major city that should be on the forefront of change. Let's stop getting in our own way.

12:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's called Old City for a reason.

4:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why don't one of the preservationists buy it and save it?
Put your money where your mouth is...

12:08 AM  

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