Proposed historic district a tool to maintain area’s character
In a packed room last week at Roxborough Memorial Hospital, about 100 people — an impressive number for a normally slow summer evening — gathered to listen to city officials explain the proposed Ridge Avenue Roxborough Thematic Historic District, a new level of protection possibly to be afforded to 188 buildings up and down the Ridge.
While tempers ran hot at several points during the two-hour meeting — the room was decidedly split on the topic at the moment, with both strong advocates and strong critics present — there are a few key takeaways for me.
First, Roxborough is united on at least one key piece of this: that demolitions have run amok, that change is happening way too fast, that the infill being shoehorned between longstanding homes is out of scale and character with the neighborhood, that driving along Ridge has gone from bad to dreadful.
What those concerned about the historic district worry about is whether historic designation will address this paramount concern. Or instead, is it zoning that needs to be addressed instead? Or the tax abatement, which the room seemed equally unified in deriding?
Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., the author of the demolition moratorium that has temporarily stopped the bleeding along Ridge, introduced the meeting and later answered many questions at the back end of the evening.
“There are several arrows in the quiver,” he offered, to stop the demolitions, and historic designation was only one, one that he helped put forward in response to overwhelming community — and civic association — concern and pressure. He promised to explore all the tools that might work, including ending the tax abatement, and civics and citizens should follow up on that promise.
And while there are several arrows in the quiver, truth is there are only a few — too few — that really work, and historic designation is a strong one.
Before coming to the Schuylkill Center, I spent 16 years directing a nonprofit that advocated for historic and environmental preservation. In that capacity, I’ve come to understand historic districts fairly well and hope the community will dig into the topic and research what it means. To its credit, to help you with that, the Roxborough Development Corp. has placed on its website a treasure trove of information on the proposed district including the city’s historical commission nomination narrative — which should be required reading for all Roxborough-ites as it tells the complete story of the “linear village” that grew up along Ridge — plus the listing with photographs and explanatory text of all 188 buildings, plus information on the additional meetings coming up in September and October. It’s easy to access, and everyone should do just that.
Last week, I wrote about a collection of four abandoned buildings along the block of Ridge between Shawmont and Wigard, what resident and historic John Johnstone called the “most endangered, most historic block in Roxborough.” Turns out it’s technically five buildings, as Girlfriends salon is connected to a 2½-story stone building, making that two buildings which I mistakenly counted as one. So there are five consecutive buildings up for grabs on this one stretch, and three of the five would be contributing resources to the proposed historic district. Not contributing — and therefore not on the list — are the old one-story cinder-block farmer’s supply store and the Girlfriends salon building itself, which must be 20th century.
So the currently open and exposed home at 7707 Ridge would be protected by the ordinance if it survives, as would the small stone building, which the city’s historical commission dates to 1790. Also protected is the 1896-99 residence guarding the entrance of Matthew’s Beverage, which sadly has a demolition notice glued to its door (and I am not sure of what happens to this building after the demolition moratorium ends).
For me, the historic district adds that additional important layer of protection to notable buildings like that.
One more thought: the Roxborough Development Corp. came under surprising heat at the meeting, one questioner pointedly asking the historical commission if a development corporation had ever nominated a historic district before this. Missing the subtext, the commission’s director answered that most districts are nominated by community-level nonprofits, not the city. What the question was really poking at was the questioner’s misguided notion that the RDC had somehow engineered this nomination through, when in truth they were simply hosting the event by the community’s request and supplying an easy place for Roxborough to find the necessary documents. Moving ahead, as the civics talk about the district, each district’s members can now go to one site for information.
Rich Giordano, president of the Upper Roxborough Civic Association, made sure to point out that this was decidedly not a top-down effort, that this “bubbled up from the bottom,” as he put it. This proposed district resulted from residents complaining at civic association meetings, and the civics approaching Curtis Jones bereft at the level of demolition sweeping the community.
Bottom line: the community should be thanking the RDC for its efforts here.
Moving forward, after an August lull, there will be testimony in a hearing downtown in September and then another hearing and a possible vote in October.
And we’ll see which way the historic winds blow. Whatever the outcome, I hope Roxborough unites on preserving its history, what James Calamia, head of the RDC, noted at the top of the meeting “gives Roxborough its competitive edge.”
Let’s keep that edge.
The 1844 Valentine Keely house on Ridge Avenue between Summit and Port Royal was built by a longtime Roxborough family.