Judge Halts City of Philadelphia's Demolition of Buildings

Medium-sized image unavailable for this photo.
The neoclassical building and its modern addition
(left) are unsafe and too expensive to incorporate into
the convention center, the city says.

Credit: Design Advocacy Group

UPDATE: The Philadelphia Life Insurance Co. Building was demolished in February.

The city of Philadelphia is expanding its convention center, and two buildings stand in the way.

At 6:30 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 22, two days after the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Society ruled against the demolition of the structures, the city's department of general services removed the cast-stone facade of a 1962 modern addition to the Philadelphia Life Insurance Co. Building.

A court date is set for Jan. 8. In the meantime, the agency must "save and preserve" the dismantled facade, according to the Dec. 24 order by Commonwealth Court Judge Bonnie Leadbetter.

That act violated a 2004 agreement between the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority and Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to incorporate the two connected buildings into the new complex in exchange for demolishing 18 others.

The department of general services (DGS), which conducted the demolitions, says it isn't bound to the agreement because only the Convention Center Authority signed it, according to a Dec. 21 letter to the commission from Elizabeth O'Neill, acting deputy secretary for public works of the DGS.

"The impasse we have reached seems to stem, in part, from the 2004 memorandum of agreement," O'Neill writes. "In our view, the Memorandum is defective because it is devoid of any cost or safety considerations and thereby creates the expectation … that the buildings will be preserved regardless of cost, and regardless of any consequences for the safety of our citizens."

At stake is not just the buildings but the clout of a state agency. "In essence, the credibility of the state historical commission is on the line," wrote Philadelphia Inquirer architecture columnist Inga Saffron on Dec. 25. "If its policies can be unilaterally overruled by another state agency, it could lose the trust of developers, architects and others."

The showdown couldn't have come at a worse time: Philadelphia's current Mayor John Street has just two days left in his term, and the new mayor, Michael Nutter, takes office on Jan. 7.

Nutter was the authority's chairman in 2004, when the agreement was signed.

O'Neill's Dec. 21 letter says it will cost an additional $9.8 million to incorporate the buildings, but the commission says construction documents show it will cost an extra $2.7 million.

Are the buildings unsafe? The city's department of licenses and inspections' ruled that they were, but the state historical and museum commission says most engineers disagree. Richard Holland, director of technical operations at Philadelphia-based Vitetta Architects, which the city says "strongly recommended the demolition," did not comment for this article because of the pending lawsuit, he said.

"It is the opinion of the commission that DGS has not made a case for public safety issues," wrote Barbara Franco, commission director, in a Dec. 26 response to O'Neill's letter. "The preponderance of the engineering evidence says it is feasible to save the buildings' facades."

Preservationists fear that public sentiment may not be enough to save the five-story neoclassical building complex.

"The newspapers and the editorials do reflect a general sentiment that goes beyond the concern about the buildings to the broader concern about what happens when a state agency refuses to comply with an agreement it made with another state agency," says John Gallagher, executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, who plans to testify at Tuesday's hearing. "There's been strong press, but there's no indication that the department of general services is backing down." 

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