Historic Districts: The Basics
What is a historic district?
A historic district is a collection of historic resources linked by a location or theme. Local historic districts recognize the historic, cultural and architectural importance of a neighborhood or area with the goal to preserve the historic fabric of that place. The definition listed in the Philadelphia Historic Preservation Ordinance is as follows: “A geographically definable area possessing a significant concentration, linkage, or continuity of buildings, structures, sites, or objects united by past events, plan, or physical development. A district may comprise an individual site or individual elements separated geographically but linked by association, plan, design, or history.”
What is the difference between the local (City of Philadelphia) and national historic registers in terms of how well they protect historic architecture?
Properties within a National Register Historic District are not protected from demolition or insensitive alteration. Powelton Village is already a National Register Historic District. The primary advantage of being listed on the National Register of Historic Places is that it allows commercial property owners to take advantage of historic tax credits when undertaking projects that include major restoration. Listing on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places does offer protection from demolition or insensitive alterations.
Does designation affect my property taxes or insurance?
No. Designation has no bearing on those costs, only property value. Historic designation is not a factor in the City of Philadelphia’s property re-assessments, only prevailing sales trends and other related market data.
My house is already on the local historic register. Would a historic district change anything for me?
Permits & Regulations
How does historic designation affect the permit process?
Preservation oversight by the Philadelphia Historical Commission (PHC) is legally an extension of the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses & Inspections (L&I), which assures that building code, life safety, and zoning-related requirements are upheld for all new construction and the renovation of existing structures.
So, when applying for permits for any renovations that affect the exterior of your property, in particular in view of the street, L&I will first refer your application the staff of the Historical Commission for approval. Currently, 95% of all applications are approved by PHC staff within 5 days.
If there are disagreements about preservation matters, the case may be referred to the Hardship Committee of the PHC, and the full Commission board where owners can argue their case. If you encounter difficulties working with the PHC, please let PVCA’s Historic Preservation Committee know, and we can try to advocate for you, based on our relationships at the PHC.
Your contractor submits permit applications for work to L&I.
If your address falls within a historic district, L&I refers the application first to the PHC.
PHC reviews (and hopefully) approves the work outright, or negotiates with the contractor/owner over a solution.
The approved application goes back to L&I for building and zoning code compliance review and final approval.
What types of replacement windows are allowed in historic districts?
This depends on the property and window type. According to the Historical Commission Rules and Regulations, replacement windows shall match the original appearance in proportion, form, and materials as closely as possible.
Would becoming a historic district require me to restore all of the historical details on my property? What if repairs have already been done to my home in a non-historic way (e.g. vinyl windows)?
Being listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places does not obligate a property owner to replace elements or materials that are already in place at the time of listing.
What is covered and not covered by Historical Commission oversight?
Not covered: interiors, building use, paint colors, and general maintenance (painting, gutters, re-glazing, gardening/landscaping, pointing, seasonal decor). Covered: windows, doors, fences/gates/walls, porches/decks, roofing, permanent signage, exterior masonry, exterior mechanicals.
How does a historic district prevent demolitions?
Demolition permits in historic districts are reviewed by the Historical Commission. There are some circumstances in which demolitions are allowed, including those benefiting the public interest or in instances of financial hardship where it has been demonstrated that a sale of the property would be impracticable or cannot yield a reasonable rate of return.
Impact on Property Owners
How would historic status affect the cost of major exterior repairs?
For the purpose of this response, let’s assume that we are talking about roof replacement. For a typical second empire mansard roof, the commission is most concerned with protecting public views of historic properties and may require that the roof material visible from public view match the texture and profile of the slate which it replaced. This may result in higher material cost. Less scrutiny will be given to areas not visible from the public right of way. The commission is cognizant of financial constraints and is typically willing to work with owners to meet mutual objectives of cost and appearance.
Can the Historical Commission require me to do something I cannot afford?
No. There is a hardship clause in the ordinance and a process for negotiating with the Historical Commission. PVCA may also assist in advocating for neighbor interests and cases before the commission.
What tends to happen to property values as a result of historic designation?
Many studies have shown that property values are more likely to stabilize in historic districts. The City of Philadelphia does not consider historic designation when establishing property assessments. Taking West Philadelphia as an example, there is little price differential between the same house design on the 4600 block of Hazel, which is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, versus the 500 block of S 46th Street, which is not.
Historic District Nomination Process
What would a nomination for our neighborhood look like?
Recent nominations of other properties and districts can be viewed at the Historical Commission’s website. The University City Historical Society also links to recent nominations within West Philadelphia on their website, www.uchs.net.
How long would the nomination process take?
Anywhere from a few months to several years.
How much would the nomination process cost?
There is no cost to submit a historic district nomination. However the PVCA may choose to hire a consultant if it is determined that we do not have the volunteer capacity to prepare the nomination.
How can we be assured that the city will enforce historic district regulations?
It is the City’s responsibility to enforce the integrity of a historic district. Citizens play an integral part in reporting potential violations so that they can be enforced by the City.
How does historic designation affect the amount of affordable housing in a given neighborhood?
Historic designation in no way impacts the amount of affordable housing in a given neighborhood. Historic designation does not make it any more difficult to create affordable housing. In fact, listing on the National Register may open the door for tax credits which make affordable housing more financially viable.
Would a historic district impact levels of owner-occupied housing?
We are not aware of any studies showing how historic designation may impact owner-occupancy.
Where can I learn more?
Philadelphia Historical Commission Rules & Regulations: This document contains all of the rules, regulations and processes that are followed and enforced by the Commission.
Philadelphia Historical Commission Ordinance: This document is the underlying piece of legislation created by City Council to form and govern the Commission.
Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia: The Preservation Alliance is an independent, nonprofit advocacy organization for historic preservation, unaffiliated with the City of Philadelphia. It is a go-to resource for the preservation community and owners of historic buildings. Their Marketplace Directory has a wealth of contractors and resources for preservation, and their Preservation Toolkit and Philadelphia Resources Directory are home to further links to regional resources.
Philadelphia Historic Preservation Task Force: Organized by the Mayor’s Office and Philadelphia Historical Commission, the Task Force is a new initiative of the City to improve its approach to preservation policy and advocate for greater, preservation-related owner/developer benefits. Its website has a wealth of resources for owners of historic buildings, notably its Neighborhood Preservation Toolkit, Resources for Homeowners, and Historic Designation FAQs.
Philadelphia Historical Commission: The Commission is the City-created agency responsible for overseeing historically designated properties and districts. Its website publishes the schedule of Commission Meetings & Agendas has a number of resources, such as Information for Property Owners.
Many thanks to the Overbrook Farms Club for contributing several questions, answers, and resources to our page!