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For the Philadelphia Business Journal

Property, like so many other things, looks differently in different lights.

Take a huge open parcel of land by a river. Some would see in this land a shimmering mirage of crowded tract housing, with cascades of cash fluttering down from its ethereal heights. Open land seems to bring tract housing like honey brings bees.

Others---the Philadelphia Preservation Alliance, for example--see living relics of the past, and among these relics a beautiful old picture lit in amber light: The sunny farm on the hillside, the barges plying the water below, the flocks in the meadow.

When the Philadelphia Preservation Alliance became involved with conservation efforts at the old Barker Farm in Roxborough, it was just such a picture it had in mind When it became clear that the farm, one of the largest tracts of open land left in the city, would go up for sale, the Preservation Alliance tried to ensure the survival of its openness.

Through the strategic use of easements, the Alliance ensured that, rather than hosting the 276 houses that zoning allowed there, the land would instead remain mostly open, with only six houses built on 27 acres, and most of the existing buildings preserved.

"Our primary role is that of advocacy and lobbying, said Anthony Forte, chairman of the Alliance. "We try to take a role in matters involving buildings and landmarks, and also try to influence more general policy."

The Preservation Alliance has become the leading historical preservation organization for the Philadelphia region, an eight-county area comprising the city and its environs.

Formed five years ago from the merger of two similar organizations, the Alliance hopes to maintain the architectural spirit, and perhaps even the cultural heritage, of Philadelphia. It works as an advocate, an advisor and sometimes even an owner of properties, in the service of maintaining their historical or architectural significance.

The 1200-member organization survives financial with membership dues, architectural tours, fund-raising events and lots of volunteer work.

In the last several years the Alliance has worked to preserve several landmark properties including the Naval Home on Grays Ferry Avenue, The Baptist Temple on Broad Street, and the Royal Theater on South Street. In these pursuits it has been largely successful.

But sometimes it loses.

Recently the Alliance lost a battle to keep a significant building from being demolished in the 1600 block of Sansom Street. For several months the Alliance offered testimony and friend-of-the-court briefs trying to halt the demolition, which was supposed to take place so that a garage could rise.

But the court found in favor of the developers and the building fell in April. The Alliance continues to oppose the construction of a garage there, saying it would disturb the character of the neighborhood.

Other battles have turned out more happily.

The Barker Farm, for example. As recently as two years ago, the land in Upper Roxborough was scheduled to become an antenna farm, but that plan died before the protests of local civic organizations. Then the Alliance stepped in to try to ensure the land's bucolic character.

Finding buyers who agreed to give up rights of development--in exchange for substantial tax benefits--the Alliance ensured that the land would remain open in perpetuity.

By getting property owners to give up certain rights that come with their land or property--such as the right to develop it further--or to change a façade--the Alliance can direct them toward tax credits and other benefits.

"The way they describe property rights in law school is as a bundle of sticks," said Forte, a real estate attorney with Saul Ewing. "When you own land it's not like you own a single undivided thing. You own a bundle of rights which you can take out separately.

"You may have right to own the property, or occupy it like a tenant, or build something on it. You can then separate out those rights and either retain them or give them, or sell them, to someone else.

"One of the things you can do with property is develop it to the extent the law allows. But you can donate this right to a non-profit organization, and thus limit yourself to a specified plan for the property. From this you may be entitled to certain tax credits or deductions."

The Royal Theater on South Street is another example of the shifting role of the alliance in the interest of preservation.

For years the building sat idle, the target of pigeons and vandalism. A developer hoped to demolish it for other buildings. But the Alliance stepped in to become essentially its owner. Finally the Alliance found an owner, Universal Homes, willing to renovate it and preserve its essential character. .

The Alliance also managed to preserve the buildings along the 13th street corridor, Forte says, by selling them to Tony Goldman, who has sounded sympathetic to the idea of keeping the buildings intact.

The Alliance is also one of the parties involved in the lawsuit to keep “Dream Garden,” the cut glass mural designed my Maxfield Parrish and executed by Louis Tiffany, from being taken out of the Curtis Center.

Currently the Alliance is working with the owners of Boyd’s Theater on Chestnut, to see what can be done to save the theater. In a similar way, a developer hopes to build an office tower at the corner of 18th Street and Chestnut which would involve the demolition of historic buildings.

“In a city like Philadelphia, historical preservation is so important to the character of the city. We do things that the city’s Historical Commission, an arm of the government, can’t do. The Historical Commission is the branch of the city that officially enforces the historical preservation ordinances.

We try to do the things that the commission is not suited to do, like advocacy, and working with community groups to craft solutions to preservation problems.

“The way that Philadelphia used to do things like this was entirely by ad hoc committee,” Forte said. “It had the potential to be arbitrary, where you have one building on one block designated historical and another not. So a more comprehensive approach was needed.

The Alliance gets involved in projects when people or groups bring buildings to their attention.

“If what we’re talking about is a local neighborhood issue, and there is a good neighbor preservation organization involved, we try to play a supporting role. If it's of city or regional issue, we try to take a more active role.

“In past year or two, we have had real financial struggles. A lot of cultural organizations have had a hard time. As important as people think it is, finding the funding is pretty difficult. So we can only do so much, and would love to do more.”

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