Pro­posed city coun­cil bill — ‘more than just a mora­to­rium’

The Review - - News - Mike Weil­bacher Colum­nist MikeWeil­bacher di­rects the Schuylkill Cen­ter for En­vi­ron­men­tal Ed­u­ca­tion in Roxbor­ough, tweets @SCEEMike and can be reached at mike@ schuylkill­cen­ter.org.

Sen­si­tive to a com­mu­nity reel­ing from toomany de­mo­li­tions in too short a span of time, Coun­cil­man Cur­tis Jones Jr. is set to give a de­light­ful Christ­mas present to his preser­va­tion-minded con­stituents — a year-long de­mo­li­tion mora­to­rium on his­toric prop­er­ties along Ridge Av­enue.

As re­ported in th­ese pages by Kier­sten Mc Mona­gle three­weeks ago, the coun­cil­man in­tro­duced a de­mo­li­tion mora­to­rium bill in late Septem­ber, but was then await­ing the as­sign­ment of hear­ing for the bill to move for­ward. As his chief of staff, Joshua Cohen, ex­plained tome last week, a hear­ing is nowset and­will be held by the rules com­mit­tee in Coun­cil Chambers on Tues­day, Dec. 5, at 10 a.m. The meet­ing is open to the pub­lic. If ap­proved, which Cohen ex­pects (and Jones does sit on the rules com­mit­tee), it then goes to the full coun­cil for two read­ings, where­upon it hope­fully is signed into law by the mayor.

“We’re hop­ing to get this done be­fore coun­cil re­cesses for the holidays,” con­cluded Cohen.

Why this bill now?

“It’s no se­cret that there’s been a large amount of de­mo­li­tions in Roxbor­ough re­cently, the most prom­i­nent be­ing the Bunt­ing House a cou­ple of years ago,” he con­tin­ued, re­fer­ring to a large and prom­i­nent Vic­to­rian house on Ridge Av­enue. “Dur­ing the hia­tus, we’ll work with the com­mu­nity and preser­va­tion­ists to cre­ate an in­ven­tory of ex­ist­ing his­toric build­ings. We’re lean­ing to­wards cre­at­ing a his­toric dis­trict.”

In that re­gard, “I’d call this more of a his­toric preser­va­tion bill than just a mora­to­rium.”

If it be­comes a his­toric dis­trict, it would be a re­mark­able one, ex­tend­ing al­most six miles up Ridge Av­enue, from theWis­sahickon Trans­porta­tion Cen­ter to North­west­ern Av­enue, and en­com­pass some 500 dif­fer­ent prop­er­ties.

“I think it’s a great thing,” John John­stone told me this week. The for­mer pres­i­dent of the Roxbor­ough-Manayunk-Wis­sahickon His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety and the owner of what he calls “the old­est orig­i­nal per­ma­nent res­i­dence in Philadel­phia,” a 1717 stone house on Ridge Av­enue, John­stone says, “In just the 18 years I’ve been here, I’ve seen at least a dozen his­toric build­ings get de­mol­ished.

“If they do a his­toric dis- trict, they should start it here,” he said, re­fer­ring to his stretch of Ridge Av­enue in Up­per Roxbor­ough.

Don Si­mon, pres­i­dent of the Cen­tral Roxbor­ough Civic As­so­ci­a­tion, says his civic sup­ports the mora­to­rium as well.

“It’s an ef­fort to pre­serve the char­ac­ter ofRidge Av­enue,” he said, as “it’s an old road, with 19th, even 18th cen­tury build­ings along it.”

Kay Sykora, Roxbor­ough res­i­dent and for­mer ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of theManayunk De­vel­op­ment Corp., sup­ports the mora­to­rium.

“There are a cou­ple of as­pects to the pos­si­ble his­toric dis­trict,” she told me via email. “There are the in­di­vid­ual and dis­tinct build­ings, of which there are a num­ber, then there is the con­text of the col­lec­tion of build­ings that tell the story of Roxbor­ough. Some of th­ese might be newer build­ings, but the scale, set­tings and types of build­ings are part of who we are in the larger con­text of lo­cal his­tory.”

“The thing I’d want to em­pha­size,” said Rich Gior­dano, pres­i­dent of the Up­per Roxbor­ough Civic As­so­ci­a­tion, “is that the char­ac­ter of the neigh­bor­hood, es­pe­cially here on the up­per end, is de­fined by a com­bi­na­tion of sig­nif­i­cant green space and his­toric struc­tures. To­gether they cre­ate a feel­ing that wouldn’t be the case if you had just one or the other. Al­though we ex­ist in the mod­ern built world, we are still sur­rounded by con­ti­nu­ity in both nat­u­ral and man­made his­tory.”

Si­mon agrees with the open space connection.

“There are sin­gle=fam­ily homes sit­ting on fairly large lots,” he of­fered. “They are go­ing to tear down some sig­nif­i­cant prop­er­ties and fill up the spa­ces with stucco boxes.” Not­ing there are “cur­rently at least six de­mo­li­tion per­mits on prop­er­ties along Ridge Av­enue, it would be a shame if we end up with noth­ing but stucco boxes fromone end ofRidge to the other.”

“This is an ef­fort,” con­tin­ued Sykora, “to ad­dress the same­ness of most com­mer­cial ar­eas to­day along main roads. You ac­tu­ally can no longer tell where you are at be­cause every area has the same as­sort­ment of new com­mer­cial. When­ever I travel around this coun­try, it with a sense of sadness be­cause the over­all iden­tity of ar­eas has been lost.”

Pre­serv­ing Roxbor­ough’s unique­ness is also im­por­tant to John­stone.

“Th­ese build­ings are made of in­dige­nous stone, the Wis­sahickon mica schist,” he said. “This will not be found in Cen­ter City, where most houses were brick.”

And he pointed to a chink in the rock above his first-floor fire­place, re­lat­ing the legend that a drunken Ge­orgeWash­ing­ton mis­fired his gun, cre­at­ing the hole. How many houses can boast that?

Sens­ing that the mora­to­rium was com­ing, Cohen noted that “un­for­tu­nately, a cou­ple of de­vel­op­ers have al­ready pulled ap­pli­ca­tions for de­mo­li­tion per­mits, so the three or four build­ings across from the po­lice sta­tion and next to theWawa will come down — shame to see themgo. There’s also a de­mo­li­tion ap­pli­ca­tion for a nice home at the cor­ner of Ridge and Del­mar.”

The Roxbor­ough De­vel­op­ment Corp. touts Roxbor­ough as “a place with roots.” True. While one part of those roots is the peo­ple who live here, peo­ple born and raised in Roxbor­ough, an­other is the open space and a third is our shared his­tory. The de­mo­li­tion mora­to­rium, and com­ing his­toric preser­va­tion bill, is, at its sim­plest level, an at­tempt to keep th­ese roots.

“How all this plays out will be in­ter­est­ing,” con­cluded Sykora.

No kid­ding. But for the mo­ment, go Coun­cil­man Jones.

SUB­MIT­TED PHOTO

A house on Ridge Av­enue dat­ing back to 1844.

SUB­MIT­TED PHOTO

The Bunt­ing House.

SUB­MIT­TED PHOTO

A house on Ridge Av­enue dat­ing back to 1717.

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