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A bill proposed in the City Council by West Philadelphia Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell has put residents and realtors on opposing sides of debate over the preservation of historical districts and buildings.

The measure would shift the power to determine the historical value of the city's districts and buildings from the Philadelphia Historical Commission to the City Council and would remove many parts of West Philadelphia from eligibility in the program.

When a district or building is designated as historic, residents and owners must garner the approval of the commission before changing or improving their properties. These provisions serve as a "tool for a community to retain its physical integrity," according to the Historical Commission Web site.

The bill, however, would exempt areas of the city that fall under Mayor John Street's Neighborhood Transformation Initiative his signature anti-blight project or that fall within urban renewal zones from being historical zones. It would also give City Council the authority to rescind designations that the commission has made.

The bill brings to light a long-running controversy in Philadelphia over the merits of preserving versus developing the city's oldest districts.

Blackwell said she hoped the measure would ensure that "everyone within the boundaries of the historical district will have a say in what happens."

However, for those left out of consideration for becoming a historical districts, these changes raise concerns that the council would be given more power to develop or destroy buildings without considering their historical value.

"This changes the whole ability to protect historic properties," said John Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. "It also impairs the way historic preservation can contribute to the economic development of the city."

If the bill passes, "we would have no say over who tears anything down or what they do to their property," said University City Historical Society board member and Spruce Hill resident Sylvia Barkan.

The bill would remove the Spruce Hill neighborhood from the list of eligible areas for historic designation and would slow the rate of growth or bring property values down, according to Matthew Wolfe, vice president of the Spruce Hill Community Association.

"We need to attract middle-class, tax-paying citizens to Philadelphia," Wolfe said. "We shouldn't be afraid to say that rising property values is a good thing."

The districts in the city that have been preserved as historical have seen the greatest appreciation in property values. Non-uniform property improvements, which are prohibited in historic districts, destroy property values, he said.

Many in the community also believe the bill would politicize the process of determining historical districts.

"It would unfortunately take preservation out of the hands of people who are professionally more capable of dealing with the issues ... and place it into a political context," said Barry Grossbach, a member of the Spruce Hill Community Association.

Councilman James Kenney called the bill "devastating for West Philadelphia and for Penn," and in reaction he proposed a resolution calling for the Legislative Oversight Committee to examine the city's preservation law. However, a majority in the City Council shot down Kenney's resolution.

Realtors and property owners could stand to benefit from Blackwell's efforts to limit historical classifications, which can restrict the methods and materials owners can use to renovate or make repairs.

"The commission has been very cavalier in designating historic districts," West Philadelphia housing provider Alan Krigman said.

As a result, owners of what Krigman called "ordinary buildings" must frequently consult with the Historical Commission in order to make any improvements.

This process leads to construction that is "considerably more expensive than what the owner may have wanted," Krigman said.

Still, some believe the commission does not respond to the needs of the people and needs legislative oversight.

"I don't think that some appointed commission of people who have a special interest and are self-righteous about preservation should tell me what to do with my properties," Krigman said.

Despite disagreements over the merits of Blackwell's bill, many agree that the discourse surrounding the issue of preservation benefits everyone involved.

"We're interested in learning more about what the problems are that Councilwoman Blackwell sees, to see if there are alternative ways to address" them, Gallery said. Staff Reporter Elizabeth Thomas contributed to this report.

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