Pro­posed his­toric dis­trict a tool to main­tain area’s char­ac­ter

The Review - - OBITUARIES - Mike Weil­bacher Colum­nist Mike Weil­bacher di­rects the Schuylkill Cen­ter for En­vi­ron­men­tal Ed­u­ca­tion in Up­per Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike and can be reached at [email protected]­cen­ter.org.

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.

SUB­MIT­TED PHOTO

The 1844 Valen­tine Keely house on Ridge Av­enue be­tween Sum­mit and Port Royal was built by a long­time Roxborough fam­ily.

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