Preserving history cannot come at the cost of displacement

5th Square, Philadelphia’s urbanist political action committee, feels compelled to respond to some of the points made in this piece about the recent bid to designate large swaths of Washington Square West as a historic district.

We oppose this historical designation for a number of reasons.

Our primary reason for opposition is that the application cites several parking lots as historically “contributing properties.” Designating parking lots as historic properties is incredibly irresponsible in an era of skyrocketing housing costs and impending climate catastrophe. Surface parking lots are ripe for building dense housing, creating housing options for people, rather than being impermeable concrete wastelands.

Preservationists claim, “The soil underneath parking lots in Center City Philadelphia might contain valuable archaeological artifacts.” We agree, and preservation of our city’s history is incredibly important to 5th Square. However, currently, there are no entities in Philadelphia who are paying the hundreds of thousands of dollars to get these artifacts out from under the parking lots. Instead, preservation groups are content to let the artifacts be in the ground until someone proposes building housing on the site. Preservation of these parking lots will not result in valuable history being found. Instead, we are choosing to provide car storage.

Secondly, historic designation raises housing prices, presents additional red tape, and discourages developers from building housing in these neighborhoods. Fewer homes means higher housing costs, and these higher housing costs won’t simply stay in Washington Square West. As the supply of housing grows tighter, demand grows in other, more affordable neighborhoods. A historic designation in one neighborhood results in gentrification and displacement across the city. Current residents within the historic district will also be burdened with higher costs to repair and maintain their historic homes. Homeowners across this city already know how difficult it is to find a good contractor to do minor repairs. With the added requirements of a historic district, longtime residents may choose to simply be displaced and leave their neighborhood, rather than bear the time and monetary expenses of adhering to the strict bureaucratic requirements of a historic district.

Finally, dense housing in amenity-rich neighborhoods is one important way to keep people in their homes. When demand outstrips supply because there are restrictions on housing supply, homeowners face rising property taxes and limited solutions. This puts pressure on homeowners to sell and move out of the neighborhood. Increased rents will displace renters. When there is an abundance of new housing–both affordable and market-rate– there is less demand on existing housing stock.

We recognize that the need for housing affordability must be synthesized with the need for preserving history. Thus, while we oppose blanket, district-wide designations, we support designations on a more thoughtful, property by property basis. This will allow more residents to experience Washington Square West and other neighborhoods’ rich history, rather than leaving these to be the province of a wealthy few.

Fae Ehsan and Steph Davis are members and volunteers at 5th Square, a Philadelphia-based political action committee focused on issues around land use, mobility, and the built environment.