Demolition Underway at 41st & Sansom

Earlier this month, we told you about a plan from Campus Apartments to demolish an attractive building at 123 S. 41st St. and build a 98 bed student housing building in its place. And we lamented that the new building wouldn’t possibly hold a candle, architecturally, to the Italiante mansion that’s been here for over a century. There’s now a rendering posted at the property and you’d surely agree that, indeed, the plan for the new doesn’t compare with the old.

From a few weeks ago
Project rendering

In our previous story, we expressed our frustration that this building was going to be demolished but indicated that we supported the developer’s right to do so, given that the property isn’t listed on the local historic register. We would also impugn any effort to nominate this building to the register in a last minute attempt to prevent its redevelopment, as we’d consider that to be a violation of property rights. Instead, we argued for 1) increased funding for the Historical Commission so they can more proactively nominate buildings to the local register, and 2) the creation of development standards that would encourage developers to work with their architects to make the strongest effort when building in neighborhoods like Spruce Hill.

Demolition moving forward

As demolition is now underway, Inga Saffron wrote a column on this property yesterday, stating quite succinctly “never has Philadelphia seen so many good buildings displaced by bad ones.” Does she ever have a point, especially in certain neighborhoods in West Philly. Saffron suggests another potential protection for the future, the establishment of a historic district in Spruce Hill. There have been two efforts to move forward with such a plan, first in 1987 and then again in 2005. Even though the neighborhood was added to the National Historic Register back in 1997, Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell has blocked efforts to add the neighborhood to the local register, indicating that it would create a hardship for long term residents. And to a certain extent, she has a point. Ask anyone living in Spring Garden how tough it can be to replace a window, and they’ll tell you about hearings and presentations, and paying exorbitant sums to procure a window that meets the regulations of the district. But couldn’t we figure out a middle ground between allowing demolition of any building in this neighborhood and making it tough for someone to replace a window or door? Some kind of Historic District Lite, not currently on the books, might protect the architecture in the neighborhood while not making it so much harder for homeowners to live their lives.

One approach we don’t favor, at least on a citywide basis, is a proposal from the Preservation Alliance to create a demolition review board for properties of a certain age. Already, there is so much red tape and bureaucracy in the world of Philadelphia development, and such a board would add time and expense and uncertainty to an already challenging process. Perhaps though, in certain neighborhoods like Powelton Village or Spruce Hill, this could be a middle ground that’s part of a Historic District Lite concept. As the mayor’s Historic Preservation Task Force starts their work on figuring out the balance between growth and preservation in Philadelphia, maybe they’ll give such an idea some consideration.