“We know it should go through zoning to get approval,” Hollenberg acknowledged. But it’s Penn’s sense that the neighborhood won’t support the proposal. So to go through the zoning process “feels like throwing gas on a burning fire.”
Embers of that fire smolder simply from West Philadelphia’s long memory of Penn’s expansion decades ago.
Penn’s position also assumes that a five-story limit is broadly supported. Even if both Spruce Hill and Woodland Terrace initially agreed on a five-story conceptual height limit, some neighbors are now objecting to that option if demolition of the existing building is on the table.
“If I were to say that there was a set consensus in the neighborhood, I would be lying,” Grossbach told me.
So does that mean Penn’s entire hardship case rests on the idea that there is common ground that may not exist? Penn contends they’ve participated in dozens of meetings, and scores of individual conversations with community members to inform their position.
And more to the point of Friday’s Historical Committee meeting, should conceptual zoning opposition to a project by neighborhood groups constitute a preservation hardship?
In other words can community opposition to a rezoning lead to a demolition that also opens a hole in Philadelphia’s preservation ordinance?
Zoning complaints, much less conceptual community-level zoning opposition, are atypical grounds for financial hardship under the preservation ordinance.
Financial Hardship is an escape valve from historic designation that is meant to account for cases where a designated property “cannot be used for any purpose for which it is or may reasonably be adapted.” It is meant to account for buildings where a broad variety of restoration, redevelopment and reuse alternatives are not feasible. It is meant to be a strict test, and is not an asset test for owners.
“The potential for neighborhood opposition as grounds for hardship could be precedent setting,” John Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, told me. “It does create an issue that would be difficult for the Commission to defend.”
That point is not lost on Penn, which recognizes that its hardship position is a bit unconventional. “I think [Penn’s case] is made less awkward by the preservation voices speaking out for demolition and by knowing that we’ve tried so hard for ten years,” Hollenberg said.
Losing this badly altered historic building is one thing, setting bad precedent is another.
“What I’m worried about is the precedent for preservation policy, not for the building,” Hollenberg acknowledged. “No one is going to throw themselves in front of a bulldozer for this building.”
The issue is, in part, that this case doesn’t fit neatly into the preservation ordinance’s hardship provisions. Penn’s application for hardship
[pdf] acknowledges that this is an unusual case, but the university has spent years exploring development alternatives for this property that would see the original building restored.
There is one major point of agreement: something’s got to change at the corner of 40th and Pine.
“What bothers me more than anything else is the building isn’t contributing a thing to the corner of 40th and Pine, and hasn’t for a long period of time and we want to go ahead and see it do so,” said Ed Datz, Penn’s Executive Director of Real Estate.
Barry Grossbach agrees. “The current site is a disgrace. It is a collapsing, deteriorating building.”
This case is on this Friday's Historical Commission agenda. The Commission will meet at 1515 Arch Street, room 18-029, at 9am.