Developers began tearing down a record number of Philadelphia buildings in 2018, with more demolitions getting started over the last 12 months than any other year on record.
Data from the city’s Department of Licenses & Inspections shows that the agency doled out permits that led to 514 demolition projects since the beginning of the year. That’s up from 491 permits in 2017 and just 151 at a historic low in 2009, in the wake of the 2008 housing crash.
In addition to those 514 owner-initiated teardowns, demolition began on another 422 buildings that city inspectors deemed unsafe — adding up to a total of 937 knockdowns initiated in 2018.
Notably, 2018 was the first year on record that private demolition starts eclipsed those paid for by the city.
While L&I does not track end uses for demolition projects, Leo Addimando of the Philadelphia Building Industry Association attributed the uptick in demolition to a robust housing market.
“If anything, this increase in demo permits is a sign of the continued strength of both the for-sale housing and rental markets in Philadelphia,” he wrote in an email
A map of permits shows private demolitions scattered across gentrifying sections of the city, including Brewerytown, where a demolition turned deadly last summer, Fishtown, Kensington and Point Breeze. City-funded L&I demolitions, meanwhile, were heavily concentrated in the city’s poorest areas, clustering in North Philadelphia and portions of West Philadelphia.
But as old buildings continue to come down to make way for new construction, preservationists are ringing alarm bells.
“Every month or two, you see a neighborhood church or a hall or some kind of civic-related building or a factory building that is demolished, usually for a townhouse project,” said Oscar Beisert, a local preservationist. “We’re losing the cornerstone buildings in our neighborhoods so that a developer can do a quick project.”
However, Besiert also said the continued rise in private demolition had as much to do with the city’s poor historic protections as it does with the real estate market.
L&I records show that housing starts had actually declined slightly over the past year –– from 1,816 new construction permits in 2017 to 1,745 in 2018. Beisert blamed the continued rise in private demolitions on Philadelphia’s failure to nominate new buildings to the city’s historic register as housing sprawled outward from Center City.
“We have to protect these buildings before demolition starts,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be every building in the city, but anything that could be an individual landmark should have a demolition moratorium.”
Addimando dismissed preservationists’ concerns as “old news,” pointing to the economic benefits of a roaring downtown real estate market.
“We should really be focused on the strength of the local real estate market and all of the positive things that this brings to Philadelphia,” he said.