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News > Context Spring 2024 > Up Close: Paul Steinke

Up Close: Paul Steinke

From remaking Center City to revamping Reading Terminal Market, this lifelong Philadelphian’s fingerprints are all over our local institutions. Now he’s turning an eye towards historic preservation on a grander scale. 

by JoAnn Greco 

Growing up in the Burholme section of Northeast Philadelphia, Paul Steinke was intrigued by the idea of place at an early age.  

“I’d ask my father to take me to the end of streets,” he remembers. “I wanted to see what was at the end of Cottman Avenue, of Castor Avenue.” He built “little cities with little blocks, making street lights and scribbling stop signs in my terrible 6-year-old old handwriting.” He grilled his grandmother, who was born in 1900, teasing out her childhood memories about the factory districts in Kensington where she had lived. 

These days Steinke lives in Logan Square with his husband David Ade, an architect. He’s been executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia for nearly eight years. A quick scan of his resume — which includes stints at the Center City District, the University City District and Reading Terminal Market along with a run for City Council — illustrates that his youthful passion for Philadelphia has morphed into a long engagement with the day-to-day life of the city.  

“I’m obsessed with who’s running what and what kind of job they’re doing,” he says. “What are the problems facing the city? What are its strengths and how can we leverage them?” 

Still, the 60-year-old Steinke concedes that his career path was not linear. A positive experience in a Penn State economics course led him to choose the field as his major. The practicality of that decision was cemented when he graduated and quickly found a position at an economic forecasting firm. His financial aptitude and civic enthusiasm soon found their perfect match at Central Philadelphia Development Corporation, where, working as a data analyst, he joined a very small team looking to launch a special services district. In March 1991, the Center City District was introduced.  

“Our goal was to help the area rise above the challenges that had plagued Center City the decade before,” he says. He’d stay there for seven years, rising to director of finance, before leaving to head a nascent organization, the University City District (UCD).  

In 1996 to be exact, two like-minded organizations, the Preservation Coalition of Greater Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Historic Preservation Corporation, merged to form the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. Steinke ended up on its board — the beginning of a beautiful relationship. After four years at UCD, he moved on to run Reading Terminal Market, which had undergone a remarkable revitalization in the early ’90s.  

“It’s clearly a civic icon — a top destination for anyone, resident or visitor, who wants to get to know Philadelphia,” explains Steinke. “I have childhood memories of going there with my dad and, in the early days of the Center City District, our offices were a few blocks away. It was a frequent lunch stop for us. It’s got a great preservation story behind it, and it was a real triumph to establish guidelines to keep it unique.” 

In 2014, after 13 years, Steinke left the market to run for City Councilperson At Large. “It was always in the back of my mind as something that I might want to do,” he says. “I thought the time was right to leverage the visibility I had achieved into an elected position where I could do more to help my city.”  

He didn’t win, but when Caroline Boyce stepped down as executive director of the Preservation Alliance in 2016, Steinke was well-placed to move from his lengthy behind-the-scenes association with the organization to center stage. 

He assumed the helm at a time when the city was experiencing national accolades, a growing downtown population, rising skyscrapers, and gentrification everywhere. The Alliance was in need of a pivot.  

“When it was formed in the middle of the ’90s, a lot of prominent buildings — like the Naval Home, Fairmount Waterworks, and the Victory Building — were sitting vacant,” he recalls. “The Alliance and others successfully brokered workable solutions to save them from being demolished so they could re-open for new uses. Today’s challenge is that Philadelphia, the pandemic notwithstanding, is growing again. We need to recognize and appreciate that two-thirds of our buildings were erected before World War II.  

“One way to accomplish that, I think, is to pursue the sustainability objective,” he continues. “Preservation by its very definition values embodied energy, not wasting building materials, and finding new ways to use historic buildings.”  

He lauds the major redevelopment efforts at the Divine Lorraine, Metropolitan Opera House, and Bok Technical High School — all re-vamped within the last decade — as successful re-uses of large institutional buildings. 

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Steinke acknowledges that preservation advocates have sometimes had to settle for creative compromises. For example, on the 1900 block of Sansom Street, three buildings languished for decades in the wake of a fire, until one was sacrificed to erect a high-end condo building, while the other two were restored to accommodate affordable housing units. (It was a short-lived victory, however, since the developers eventually decided that one of the two remaining structures — the beloved Rittenhouse Coffee Shop — would indeed have to go, save for its reconstructed facade, because of structural weaknesses.)  

Still, the Philadelphia preservation arena is “changing slowly but steadily for the better,” he argues. “We’re catching up to other big cities. In the past six years we’ve increased the numbers of properties on the register by more than 25 percent, and we’ve added 25 more historic districts.” 

Steinke sees promise in the neighborhood-focused administration of the city’s newly-installed mayor, Cherelle Parker.  

“Many people think of preservation as saving old buildings in wealthy neighborhoods but they are also found in poor and working-class areas,” he says. “Whether it’s by fixing up rowhouses or converting former schools and factories to apartments, they provide opportunity for newly-created affordable housing. Look at neighborhoods that were languishing thirty or forty years ago and have rebounded. We’ve seen a sea change in neighborhoods like Brewerytown, Fishtown, and parts of South and West Philadelphia, especially when historic preservation has been embraced as a strategy.” 

To stay competitive, Philadelphia needs to complete a citywide survey of historic and cultural resources.  

“It’s something that many other historic cities have long since accomplished,” he explains. “Identifying, preserving and maintaining our enviable stock of historic buildings and streetscapes will only add to the appeal of our city as a place where people want to live and raise their families. It’s consistent with our goals of being a walkable city, a sustainable city, a diverse and equitable city. Preservation checks a lot of the boxes.”  

JoAnn Greco is a Philadelphia-based journalist who frequently writes about the built environment. 

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