Proposed city council bill — ‘more than just a moratorium’
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.
A house on Ridge Avenue dating back to 1844.
The Bunting House.
A house on Ridge Avenue dating back to 1717.