Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Front Street's Domino Scenario

The block-by-block demolition of Phila-delphia's surviving maritime arch-itecture seems to be going quite nicely, as these shocking images of Front Street's Girard Warehouses suggest. With the north corner of Front and Chestnut Streets having been just transformed into a smooth asphalt parking lot by the Spear brothers, it looks like the next logical place for the wrecking ball will be the long, handsome facade of the Girard Warehouses, the row of early 19th Century buildings that Stephen Girard built between Market and Arch Streets.
Talk about a domino effect. It was only June when the Spears, who own a collection of apartment buildings and parking lots, succeeded in manipulating city building code officials into letting them level two historically certified buildings that had defined the Front Street intersection of Chestnut since the 1830s. Now the virus of destruction is spreading uptown.
Officials at the city Historical Commission first became concerned in May, when the Brooklyn company that was supposed to be turning the Girard Warehouses into condos began tearing wildly at the facade. BRP Development ripped out the historic wooden frames, and then sheared off the rear of the building - apparently without a building permit! Commission staffers
got involved in the spring, but then all work stopped. The warehouses have been sitting in this condition ever since, waiting for winter to deal the final death blow.
And now - surprise, surprise - the owner, Tom Stafford is quietly talking to city planning officials about abandoning the approved renovation project. He wants to demolish the historic structures and erect a brand new condo tower. If the city agrees to that, it may as well write out a death certificate for its historic preservation law. Both Plan Philly and Skyline Online are concerned that the buildings could collapse any minute.

Over and over, we've seen developers buy fragile historic buildings, only to let them fall to pieces and then claim they have no choice but demolition. The only way for the city to stop that scam is to just say no: If you don't want the head-aches and expense of renovating a certified historic building, then don't buy it. Interestingly, in the same time that BRP and Stafford have been picking at the poor Girard warehouses, their neighbor to the north has successfully completed a beautiful renovation and filled the old historic building with tenants. So, it can be done, so long as you're not too greedy.
Front Street, as I wrote in this February post, was, until the start of 1993, a glorious, intact edge of the city, a living reminder of what Philadelphia was like in its maritime heyday, when clipper ships jostled for space among the wharves. But then Ed Rendell made his middle-of-the-night decision to allow the Bookbinders restaurant to demolish the Elisha Webb Chandelry at Front and Walnut. Within two years that entire block had been razed. And most of it is still empty today. If the Girard warehouses go, Philadelphia will have lost nearly four blocks of Front Street, the original Center City portion.
The waterfront activity is the reason that Stephen Girard built his series of warehouses and shops on Front Street. The ground floors were leased out to shopowners, while shipping merchants rented storage space and counting houses on the upper levels. The business had all but dried up by the time the city's port moved to South Philly in the 1960s. The old warehouses sat abandoned and forlorn for 30 years until people started to figure out that they were tailor-made for a loft living.
It's been frustrating watching the Girard Warehouses grow more decrepit while so much else in Old City has been spectacularly renovated. The buildings' bad luck was to have I-95 in its front yard. But at least the buildings managed to survive the imposition of that highway barrier. Now, ironically, that interstate road no longer seems to be such a deterrent to residential development. Several towers have been completed on Front Street. How ironic if these poor warehouses should be done in, not by the loss of the port or a massive highway, but by the overly grandiose expectations of a residential revival.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Inga:

I do not have alot of sympathy for this developer or the Spear brothers.

But to blame the state of these buildings entirely on the most recent buyer is like blaming the most recent buyer of a Czech factory for the Soviet-era contamination which has been poisoning the village water for decades. I.e., this is misplacing the blame.

To expect the developer to be able, economically, to correct the results of a half century of neglect is like expecting a doctor to restore full health to an 80 year-old life-long chain-smoking alcoholic heroin addict. I.e., this is an unrealistic expectation.

Let's be real: it is quite obvious that in this case the real culprits are: 1) the Board of City Trusts / Girard Estates, which, like a slumlord, neglected these properties for decades so that they are in their present state; 2) the City for allowing speculators (like Girard Estate) to blight our neighborhoods for years and years with impunity.

While you complain about the Spears and the Brooklyn developer, hundreds of other historic buildings throughout Center City continue to rot under the care of homegrown speculators, in plain sight of our supposed watchdogs, L&I and the Historic Commission.

Speculators and slumlords operate in plain sight of us all, and apparently this behavior is legal. As long as this remains the case, please expect more of the same. It seems a bit naive and or disingenuous to be so aghast that these buildings are ready to fall down. They have been unsafe, falling down, or burning down for decades.

I know it's more sexy to blame the
"greedy" new developers for all our problems (after 95% of the damage has been done), but reporters should start blaming the entrenched speculators and the system that enables them to make money in Philadelphia by incrementally destroying our heritage.

Thanks, CB

4:39 PM  
Anonymous Howard B Haas said...

Hey, CB, do you work for the developer? you seemed to miss one critical part of Inga's column:

Officials at the city Historical Commission first became concerned in May, when the Brooklyn company that was supposed to be turning the Girard Warehouses into condos began tearing wildly at the facade. BRP Development ripped out the historic wooden frames, and then sheared off the rear of the building.

7:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's perfectly reasonable and realistic for the developer to restore half-a-century of neglect. This is what they signed-up to do when they purchased the buildings, and many other buildings in a worse state have been restored. As Howard says, most of the damage was done in the last few months, as the Girard Estate had done a reasonable job of keeping the buildings wind and watertight, and had just replaced the roof prior to sale.

There is some possible good news on the PlanPhilly site from today, but would like to see some more info from L&I and PHC confirming the plan.

8:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a fool for actually working in accounting. I should go to Philadelphia and buy a choice historic property to convert into lucrative surface parking. Although physically located in what I hear is large city where I believe something relatively important happened around the 1770's, the government is evidently run by country bumpkin rubes so uncouth and corrupt as to allow 170 year old buildings to more or less fall down in disrepair (and this in times of the great back to city movement)under shady circumstances. Armed with 100% financing and a phone call or two to the city should be all I need to be on my to becoming the surface lot parking king. Ya hu!!

9:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like I said above, I do not have much sympathy for these buyers. Particularly if they caused unnecessary damage. But the real beef has to be with the Girard Estate. PLEEEZE do not let them off the hook so easy. For a "civic" institution, they are a very poor corporate citizen. Look around town, and you will see the Girard Estate is not a friend to good urban planning or preservation. In this case, the Girard Estate is no different from the Rappaport Estate. A new roof? So what. These buildings have been a disgrace for as long as I can remember. If you want to see buildings like this preserved, then we need to make speculation and parking development less profitable propositions in this town by taxing the crap out of them.

1:12 AM  
Blogger Fernando08 said...

You have cracked the code of making money in the Brother Loving City. Not since the halcyon days of Samuel A Rappaport has so much market value in Real Estate evaporated. The template for Philadelphia quick buck artists has not changed since he perfected it. Buy low, buy strategically placed assets, put no money into the properties, let sit vacant and opportunistically wait for a tidal wave of development, preferably publicly financed. Since we attract no new business and grow no thing that has been here for ages its best to let the building inventory rot til it absolutely has to be replaced. Parking lots are a viable business until some miraculous once in a lifetime business cycle offers real estate development as a viable alternative. Casinos, conventions, tourism, arts districts and restaurants as a bonus attraction, that takes work, high standards and a frequent invocation of excellence as a guide to what you are doing. This is inconsistent with slum engineering in the Rappaport system. His tradition continues, impossible to improve upon, garnering the same results. Hopefully, some swell donations can be had from the personal fortunes stolen from seat of America's treasure house of cultural heritage.

2:34 AM  
Blogger rasphila said...

There is plenty of blame to go around for this fiasco. Our planning mechanisms, such as they are, failed. The developer had no respect for the integrity of the waterfront. We are obsessed with parking even when, as here, it destroys the fabric of the city. I could go on, but the real question is how to change this for the future.

With a new administration coming to the city in 2008, there might be opportunities to improve our planning and our zoning. A new administration might be less obsessed with parking and more cautious about increasing the amount of surface parking.

Let's hope so. The last thing we need is more crazy-quilt planning and more destruction of our heritage.

9:19 AM  
Blogger MCCF said...

We need to fine these developers that disregard our historic integrity and start demolishing buildings they agreed to restore or reuse.

10:29 AM  
Anonymous Davis said...

I smell high rise condos...

9:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No market for highrise condos . . . I smell much worse, a weed-strewn lot

2:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the bottom line is that these buildings have been rotting for years. If the city had its act together they should have acted years ago.

2:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The area of Front Street with the maritime warehouse buildings has had a barrier in front of it long before I-95 was built. That historic photo from 1953 shows the concrete retaining wall supporting the Market Frankfort Elevated line trains that ran above ground at Front Street and started to submerge underground just south of those buildings. The Market Frankford line was altered in the 60's and 70's when I-95 was built. The way that the city negated its connection to the Delaware River has been a fact of life for a long time, well before I-95. Those structures throughout my life fronted impenetrable barriers of one sort or another.

They stood their ground though and it is a disgrace to let them rot. But the developers are not the only ones to blame. The public entities in the city still have not fully understood or recognized the value of unique historic structures like these. City planners, historic commissions and preservationists must object loudly to the slow erosion of its great old buildings.
Philly should look to other cities such as Washington DC and cite examples where historic structures can be preserved and be utilized in a way that convince private developers that tearing them done or letting is rot is in their economic interest. In fact, by preserving the structures, a developer can create a place that is more interesting and more saleable. It starts with a strong attitude about preservation in the city government though. Where is that in Philadelphia these days?!?

4:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it starts with an attitude of being anti-blight, not just pro preservation.

Philly is one of the few cities of stature in the developed world where blight of all types (bill boards, rotting buildings, parking lots)is permitted to exist right next to our most important monuments. From Independence Hall and the Art Museum, dozens of giant billboards mar the views. Vacant firetrap historic buildings crowd the heart of Old City right under the purportedly protective gaze of OCCA.

Can you imagine billboards outside of Buckingham Palace or willful, speculative neglect of historic structures in Beacon Hill?

7:07 PM  
Blogger Lauren said...

The city can, and should, do more than simply file suit. As a recipient of federal funds, under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 as amended, the city is required to assess and mitigate the impacts of its programs on National Register (NR) listed and NR-eligible properties. The current law under which new constructions and renvations are exempt from taxes for a decade is a city program that has had considerable impact on the historical heritage of the city, and this example is a case in point.

If the developer permits the structures to decay further, such that they need to be demolished, and a tower of "luxury" condos is erected on the site, the city should mitigate the impact of the abatement program in this case by denying the development any tax abatements, and assessing the condominiums at their actual sale prices for municipal real estate tax purposes.

I'm no psychic, but I predict that serving notice of intent to follow such a course would result in immediate stabilization of these historic warehouses, and a devlopment plan that would ensure their presence for generations to come.

11:58 AM  
Anonymous twa1212@aol said...

Fragile three to four story buildings cannot compete economically with surface parking. Philadelphia must pass an ordinance prohibiting additional commercial parking lots in historic districts. Buildings should not be destroyed without approved plans for reusing the land.

8:44 PM  

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