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Overview of Historical Commission's rules and processes

A previous post on this blog discussed the controversy surrounding the proposed demolition of an old Philadelphia church. The controversy pits the current owners of the church and the proposed buyer, which wants to demolish the church and build condominiums, against activists who think losing the church will cost the neighborhood a lot of its historic character.

The story raises the question of what developers can and cannot do with vintage buildings and other historic property. These questions are different than zoning and rezoning questions, as they fall under the jurisdiction of a different city department and can affect any number of different types of property.

Contrary to what might be a popular misconception, the mere fact that a building is old or even has some significance to Philadelphia's history does not, per se, mean a landowner is restricted as to what he or she can do with the building. Before the city can control what happens to the building, the building must get designated as "historic" under the Philadelphia Historical Commission's procedures.

For those who would prefer to make their own decisions about their property, the bad news is that anyone can nominate a building in the city for designation as "historic." If that designation gets legally approved, then the owner of the building will have a difficult time demolishing it or making significant changes to the exterior of the building, as such changes require review and approval over and above the normal zoning and permitting questions.

Those who own a building that is subject to the Historical Commission's jurisdiction or is being contemplated as a historic building may want to consider speaking to an experienced Philadelphia real estate attorney, as the rules involved can be quite complicated.

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