The long and circuitous story of the Germantown YWCA started a new chapter last week when developer KBK Enterprises had its rights to develop the property taken away by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority after five years of failing to make progress on the project.
KBK, which is Black-owned and based in Pittsburgh, was initially awarded the rights to develop the property in 2016 after a years of inactivity at the vacant building. But since then, the inactivity has continued despite expectations of its adaptive reuse as a mixed use apartment building, which has infuriated neighbors.
Emaleigh Doley, executive director of the Germantown Community Development Corporation, said the decision is welcome news to the many residents who have been complaining about the lack of action on such an important property.
“People may disagree about what they want to see happen there, but there is pretty much universal agreement that six years is too long for it to sit vacant. It’s had a negative impact, not just on the building but also on the surrounding community,” Doley said.
Anne Fadullon, director of the city’s Department of Planning and Development and chair of the PRA’s board of directors planned to outline the reasons for the board’s decision at a community meeting at the First Presbyterian Church on Chelten Avenue on Tuesday night.
For Yvonne Haskins
, one of the neighborhood activists who led the push for just this result, the announcement was a hard won victory that took years to accomplish. For City Councilwoman Cindy Bass, who supported KBK, it’s a bitter pill that she says smacks of insider politics tinged by racial bias. For Ken Weinstein, a developer who is very active in this section of the city and lost out on the project in 2016, it’s a new opportunity to develop an attractive property right next to an adjacent lot he already owns.
And for Germantown, the historic community at the center of all this controversy, it’s a demonstration of just how much the economics of the neighborhood have changed.
“Seven years ago, there was so little interest in Germantown that we were the only game in town, and I wasn’t surprised when we were the only ones to apply,” Weinstein said, referring to the fact that he and KBK were the only two developers who showed any interest in the property when the PRA put it out to bid in 2015, offering it up at a mere $65,000. “Here we are almost seven years later and the situation is very different. I would expect a dozen developers to now be in the picture.”
Haskins and another community activist, Ann Marie Doley, organized the group they call Friends for the Restoration of the Germantown YWCA this past fall. The 33-member group, which collected 1,200 signatures in favor of dropping KBK and moving forward with another developer, is hosting the community meeting on Tuesday night to discuss next steps.
“Now we will focus on getting a process that is community driven and transparent,” said Haskins. “This meeting is not about complaints, or the past, rather it’s to set up ways to prevent a repeat of what happened here and set a precedent for Town Hall, and other large public buildings.”
Weinstein said he planned to attend, as did Councilwoman Bass, who said she doesn’t consider the matter totally resolved and that she intends to keep fighting for KBK.
“I’m not a fair weather friend,” said Bass. “Until it’s final I’m supporting KBK. Because I don’t just think they’ve gotten a runaround, I know they’ve gotten a runaround. There’s been a narrative that somehow KBK, a multi-million dollar corporation is somehow unqualified or unable to do this project. I will be attending that meeting and I plan to lay it all out, fact by fact, case by case, what happened.”
Haskins, who has been fighting to protect the building since 2015, when the city’s department of LIcenses and Inspections declared that it was imminently dangerous and so derelict it was in danger of being torn down, tells a different story.
She said KBK never completed any of the work it needed to do in order to start work on the building, and that it was the PRA, and not KBK, that was getting a “runaround.”
The building at 5820 Germantown Avenue was built in 1915, and was one of the first racially integrated YWCAs. For decades it was a gathering place for local families.
Sold by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority in 2006 to Germantown Settlement, the building had been a poster child for blight.
After the non-profit went bankrupt and the PRA foreclosed, it sat vacant for almost five years, deteriorating to such an extent that it was in danger of being torn down. Squatters had moved in, windows were broken and hanging open, and the roof was leaking badly. By 2012, the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections labeled the building "imminently dangerous."
The PRA took over the property again in 2013 and sought RFPs for its redevelopment.
In 2015, Haskins formed The Friends of Save the Germantown YWCA, after which Bass came up with $3 million to repair the roof and stabilize the building.
That same year, at PRA’s request, Weinstein partnered with two local nonprofits, the Mission First Housing Group and Center in the Park, to propose a redevelopment plan that would turn it into low-income senior housing. Bass, however, did not approve, and the PRA rejected the offer.
Then, in November of 2016, the PRA struck a deal with KBK, a company which Bass did support. KBK’s initial plan called for a mix of market rate and affordable housing on the upper floors, with commercial and retail on the first two floors.
Then this year, after six years of watching the building sit vacant, Haskins and Doley started a new grassroots effort. And on October 13, Haskins and her group showed up at the PRA’s monthly board meeting to ask them to withdraw support for KBK Enterprises and issue a new request for proposals.
“We had 33 people who were co-sponsors to this petition,” she said. “I looked them in the eye and told them, you have the power to withdraw that award, and you know that it’s the right thing to do.”
Weinstein said KBK’s failure to commence work was not surprising to him, and not because of any fault of the developer. It just didn’t make business sense, he said, because he was counting market rate housing as part of the deal.
“I was shocked when the city awarded the project to KBK back in 2016,” he said. “We knew the numbers wouldn’t work.”
Since then, Weinstein said, rents in Germantown have risen more than the cost of construction, which means that it might now be possible to develop the property without using low-income tax credits.
It’s also not just the number of developers that will be different this time around, Weinstein thinks, but also the racial makeup of them. And that has been a concern in the past, he said.
“We still have a long way to go,” he said, “but there are definitely more developers of color operating in the city now, some of whom are active right here in the Northwest.”
Last week, Bass agreed. Still, she complained about what she sees as a “history and a pattern within [the planning department] and the PRA about land disposition, which seems to be a very biased process.”
“It’s the same narrative that occurs where you have developers from outside the city who are highly qualified, somehow they come to Philadelphia and forget all their development skills,” she said. “To act as if it’s been a level playing field, that all developers are treated equally in this city is a fiction. It's not even like it’s apples and oranges, because those are both fruits. No. This is like you get a bowl of fruit and I get a bowl of dirt.”
“It’s not right,” she continued. “The bottom line is that it’s just not right, the way things have been going. It doesn’t feel right, and it doesn't look right for the city. I’m embarrassed by it.”
The December 7 community meeting at the First Presbyterian Church on Chelten Avenue will also be livestreamed on the Chestnut Hill Local Facebook page, facebook.com/ChestnutHillLocal