A pointless threat to historic cities
Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2012
By Thomas Hylton
After decades of hard times, Philadelphia is rebounding. Millions of dollars have been invested in building rehabilitation, new construction, trees, and bike lanes. In the last decade, Center City and surrounding neighborhoods have gained 16,000 residents ages 25 to 34, most of them college-educated.
With all this progress, it would be a travesty to allow a new form of urban blight to invade nearly every Philadelphia neighborhood: ugly meters and pipes placed in front of homes with gas service.
In many Pennsylvania communities, houses are set back from the sidewalk or have side yards where meters can be placed inconspicuously, often hidden by foundation shrubbery. But Philadelphia is a city of rowhouses, most of them pressed against the sidewalk. For these properties, gas meters — industrial-looking boxes with metal pipes on each end — have traditionally been placed inside buildings, where they aren’t visible.
Now, though, rules newly proposed by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission would require inside meters to be relocated outside buildings within 10 years, including more than 24,000 meters owned by the Philadelphia Gas Works. Moreover, newly installed service lines would also require outside meters.
With many Philadelphia rowhouses just 12 to 20 feet wide, the meter proliferation generated by these proposed rules would overwhelm charming streetscapes with a distinctly utilitarian appearance. Worse, many rowhouses have been converted to apartments, which means separate meters for each unit could line facades.
For decades, distinctive architecture has helped draw thousands — most of them prosperous, enterprising, and educated — to the core areas of Philadelphia and other Pennsylvania cities. They fix up houses, pay taxes, patronize businesses, and form a nucleus for urban revitalization. And they treasure the authentic character of their neighborhoods.
Ironically, it is the density of older neighborhoods that makes them easy to serve with lateral lines from gas mains under the street. That’s why gas companies and the PUC should make every reasonable effort to avoid placing meters where they will intrude on sidewalks.
Meter placement needn’t be a safety issue. The most important safety devices — flow regulators and shutoff valves — can be placed inconspicuously in front of buildings and painted to match facades.
Last year, concerned about the degraded appearance of historic neighborhoods, the mayors of Allentown and Lancaster complained about outside meters to the PUC, which subsequently amended its proposed rules to allow gas meters to be placed inside homes in “federally approved” historic districts at property owners’ request.
While Philadelphia has 60 nationally registered historic districts, it has many others that are either locally registered or deemed eligible for national registration but not “federally approved.” And many Philadelphia neighborhoods are not located in any kind of historic district, even though they contribute significantly to the city’s historic character.
What’s more, even in federally approved districts, PGW wants “sole discretion” to decide whether a meter should be placed inside or outside.
Many more gas meters are coming. With prices falling, property owners across Pennsylvania are converting from oil furnaces to gas — not only in Philadelphia, but in other rowhouse cities, like Reading, Allentown, Lancaster, York, and Harrisburg. Each new service will require a meter, and as existing lines are replaced, meters will be moved outside.
The appearance of our streetscapes is too important to be left to utility companies that are more concerned about functionality than aesthetics. Until the gas industry devises an inconspicuous meter, the PUC should require all gas companies to work with municipal officials — such as historic review boards or planning commissions — when placing new meters and moving old ones in historic areas.
Historic neighborhoods are irreplaceable urban assets. The more their unique character is protected, the more valuable they become.