Joint UCHS & SHCA Response to the Inquirer

A joint response from the University City Historical Society and the Spruce Hill Community Association to the Philadelphia Inquirer editorial from 7/18/2023 on the ongoing Spruce Hill Historic District effort

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With its July 18th editorial on the Spruce Hill Historic District effort, the Philadelphia Inquirer alarmingly betrayed a deep disconnect with our city’s essential identity and a misunderstanding of Philadelphia’s historic preservation ordinance and its historical commission. A pointed arrow from the paper of record shockingly directed toward a community-based effort to sustain neighborhood viability deserves a direct response.

The Spruce Hill neighborhood in West Philadelphia is one of the nation’s earliest streetcar suburbs and has one of the largest collections of Victorian-era housing in the entire country. The Spruce Hill Community Association, with support and involvement from the University City Historical Society, is picking up the effort to include our unique neighborhood on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. With rampant, “by-right” demolitions happening at a dizzying scale and rendering corners of our neighborhood unrecognizable and residents at risk of displacement, the urgency for this designation effort has never been more acute.

Historic district designation is the right choice for Spruce Hill to help manage inevitable changes in our world. Historic districts are not museums; they are dynamic places that express the character of a neighborhood. They allow neighborhoods to ebb and flow with the times without allowing them to be diminished by out of scale or out of context changes. Historic districts enhance the unique character of a place and are in use and demand in every other major city including New York, Savannah, Chicago, and San Antonio.

According to the Philadelphia Historical Commission, historic districts are “a collection of historic resources linked by a location or theme.” This theme is explored in a narrative that describes the significance of the district. Spruce Hill’s significance, in part, resides in the fact that it has historically provided a variety of housing types and sizes for as wide a variety of people. The naturally occurring housing options are widely accessible. Spruce Hill is not Society Hill.

Take, for example, the north side of the 4000 block of Locust Street, where tastemaker architect Samuel Sloan designed three-story rowhouses in the 1870s to accommodate faculty members at the newly located University of Pennsylvania. These houses now provide student housing close to campus and nearby commerce. Sloan’s gracious Woodland Terrace retains a mix of owners and renters facing the historic Woodlands Cemetery.

Take also the nearly 200 years of documented African American presence centered at 41st and Ludlow Streets where the 1884 Monumental Baptist Church is located. Once a small village of free blacks in the farmland at the edge of Philadelphia, this area of modest rowhouses around the descendant church is particularly vulnerable to erasure. The grand twins along Spruce Street may no longer house affluent single families, but they continue to serve as rental properties for families and individuals and often include amenities like ground floor restaurants or a community arts center.

Due to the neighborhood’s proximity to three universities, Spruce Hill has a relatively low owner-occupancy rate. The result has been a high percentage of absentee landlords renting to students and faculty: residents who keep the character of the neighborhood young and dynamic but property owners who are not incentivized to protect their historic buildings. Our housing stock of large, single-family homes can be converted into multiple occupancy units, and vice versa, allowing for flexibility in the housing marketplace. In addition to housing, historic buildings provide the spaces for small businesses such as coffee shops, hardware stores, second-hand shops that form part of the tax base and provide necessary commercial activity. In fact, Spruce Hill falls within the boundaries of a National Register historic district which allows for income-producing properties such as apartments to qualify for rehabilitation tax credits for developers at the federal and state levels.

Historic districts are generally more dense areas than other neighborhoods and provide necessary strength in up and down markets. According to PlaceEconomics in a January 2020 report, historic districts recover from market downturns better than other areas. Their report shares that “speculation inherent in new construction leaves the industry vulnerable to boom and bust, whereas reinvestment and rehabilitation of older buildings acts as a stabilizing force during economic downturns.”

In Philadelphia, historic districts allow for the by-right development of ADUs, or auxiliary dwelling units, which can be deployed for rental income or for aging in place, a difficult aspect of our city’s vertical housing types. Designated properties also do not require zoning for reuse, allowing property developers to skip a step in a process that is complicated enough. No parking minimums are attached to designated properties or those in historic districts, also allowing flexibility for maximizing income-producing density instead of carving out land for car storage.

Housing affordability is a real crisis in our country and city. There are multiple causes, but according to PlaceEconomics, two things are clear: 1) you cannot build new and rent or sell cheap, unless there are deep subsidies or corner-cutting, and 2) we are simultaneously tearing down what is affordable and building what is not. Keeping older housing maintained and occupied needs to be a central strategy for housing affordability. Indeed, to the extent there has been displacement of longtime residents in Spruce Hill, it has largely been on the northern end, where developers have torn down older houses and replaced them with market-rate or “luxury” apartments. This is precisely what a historic district could help prevent.

To the point of the editorial and its subtext, not all historic districts have the addition of the real estate industry’s ideal of “location, location, location.” It is this feature of Spruce Hill that keeps it firmly in developers’ crosshairs and makes the neighborhood and its residents vulnerable to the multiple negative effects of demolition, rising rents, and designs that do not encourage community or affect affordability. In fact, despite being told that the housing density brought by new development will foster affordable housing, the reality is that none of the new metal boxes have lowered rent anywhere in the neighborhood or city. Rather, whenever developers invest in the next “hot” neighborhood – be it Fishtown, Hawthorne, Brewerytown, NoLibs, or University City – older houses get torn down, and inevitably, gentrification accelerates. It’s almost as if Philadelphians are expected to step without resistance into the role of dupe in the shell and pea game.

More immediately, the climate emergency demands that, to the greatest degree possible, we reuse our existing building stock and adapt it, as needed, for our changing needs. Existing buildings embody carbon and energies that have already been expended in constructions that are usually longer lasting and securely constructed than new developments. The demolition of existing buildings is counter to goals of climate response as well as heritage conservation. Our buildings form the backdrop of our lives, telling our stories and illustrating what we prioritize. Perhaps the city’s Land Bank could be better encouraged to reactivate the more than 35,000 vacant properties throughout Philadelphia.

Section One of the National Historic Preservation Act states that “the historical and cultural foundations of the Nation should be preserved as a living part of our community life and development in order to give a sense of orientation to the American people.” Made law in 1966 during the expansive era of the Great Society, this acknowledgement of historic resources as relevant to communities across the nation aligns with today’s expanded needs to address economic inequity through building reuse and reactivation.

It is our sincere belief that the designation of the Spruce Hill Historic District is the greatest act of stewardship we could demonstrate for our cherished neighborhood and the people who live here. It is one that will support human-scale density, environmental responsibility, economic strength, and resident diversity. Designation aligns with our values that support building and keeping community and the neighborhood that forms us.

Eric Santoro, President, Spruce Hill Community Association
Amy Lambert, President, University City Historical Society