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Yes, your Philly neighborhood is unique, but is it historic? p2

4/15/2015 | Real Estate Blog

We are continuing our discussion of the difference between a Neighborhood Conservation Overlay and an historic district. Both are zoning tools used by Philadelphia officials and communities to preserve the unique character of specific neighborhoods, but they are different in some important ways. In our last post, we left off with a brief explanation about the NCO application and monitoring processes. The responsibilities fall to the City Council.

Not so with the historic districts. The city’s Historical Commission, the members of which are appointed by the mayor, determines which parts of the city should be given that designation. The commission reviews all applications to alter structures and has the power to nix alterations to the buildings within the district. The commission may also recommend that the city purchase sites in order to preserve them.

Further, the criteria for historic designation are laid out in the ordinance. The criteria go well beyond “character,” too. For example, the designation may be associated with a significant person or event from the city’s, state’s or country’s past. Or, the district may qualify if it “has yielded, or may be likely to yield, information important in pre-history or history.”

For property owners, though, there is one major difference. With an NCO, as we said, at least a portion of the property owners within the proposed district must approve the idea. With historic districts, the commission must notify property owners and must hold a hearing at which property owners may discuss their support of or objections to the designation. It ends there. The commission may designate a city block as historic without the approval or buy-in of the property owners.

One question that comes from this, then, is how the city justifies placing the designation on property owned by unwilling citizens. If it is a type of eminent domain, the city should compensate the property owner. Without property owners’ involvement, though, how can the designation survive a court challenge?


Philadelphia City Code, Zoning and Planning: Historic Preservation, Sec. 14-100 et seq.

Philadelphia City Code, Zoning and Planning: Overlay Zoning Districts, Sec. 14-500 et seq.

Philadelphia City Code, Zoning and Planning: Administration and Procedures, Sec. 14-303, 14-004