A years-long battle that residents have fought to find a new developer for the Germantown YWCA appears to have hit a brick wall.
A years-long battle that a group of Germantown residents has fought to find a new developer for the Germantown YWCA, a long-vacant building that was once a thriving community hub in the heart of Germantown’s business corridor, appears to have hit a brick wall.
That’s because the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, the city-controlled agency that owns the property, has not terminated its contract with the developer, KBK Enterprises, despite the company missing last month’s deadline to find financing for the project under the terms of its agreement with the PRA.
“There is still desire to allow KBK to complete what he started,” said the PRA’s board chair, David Thomas, in a Wednesday afternoon board meeting. Thomas noted, however, that the PRA also hasn’t extended the contract.
The news comes as a disappointment to frustrated Germantown residents who have fought to find a new developer for the historic institution, which sits vacant and deteriorating on the corner of Germantown Avenue and Vernon Park. They say the 49,000-square-foot building should once again become a thriving community hub and anchor institution for Germantown’s commercial district.
But for the past decade, the once-celebrated building has sat vacant. KBK has had a contract to develop the building for the last seven of those years but has not yet started the project.
“They've had seven years to do this,” said Yvonne Haskins, a member of a neighborhood group called Friends of the Restoration of the Germantown YWCA, which has led a community fight to get the building redeveloped. “There’s no reason to give them more time.”
Haskins said she thinks the long delay suggests that KBK is not capable of completing the project and that the city should move on – especially because other local developers could do it, and KBK is based in Pittsburgh and Columbus.
John Landis, a professor emeritus of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania who lives in Chestnut Hill, said a seven-year wait is “extraordinarily unusual.”
“Usually financing for projects involving government housing subsidies is completed in about 18 months,” Landis said. “If you can’t get your financing in 18 to 24 months, you’re not going to get it.”
At last week’s board meeting, Thomas also said that KBK was "given certain tasks to be completed" and that the PRA is "still waiting on KBK to respond to us on certain matters before we can extend or terminate."
But the PRA declined to answer follow-up questions about KBK’s exact status with the agency, which tasks the company needs to complete, or how much time the company was given to complete them.
“It is not our protocol to answer questions or make comments regarding ongoing application proceedings,” PRA spokesperson Jamila Davis said in an email. “Once a resolution is reached, the public will be informed accordingly.”
Councilmember Cindy Bass, who as a district councilmember has the power to block new developers from getting a contract for the property, has long supported KBK for the project – and blamed the company’s lack of progress on racial bias at the PRA. In an emailed statement to the Local, she said it is “critically important” to keep KBK on the job, in part because the company’s owner, Keith B. Key, is Black.
There has been a “series of unfair and perhaps discriminatory actions taken” by the PRA,” Bass said, which has resulted in the company’s inability to develop the property.
According to Bass, the PRA did not give KBK credit for being a minority developer in its original proposal, which resulted in the company losing the bid. She also said the PRA told KBK it needed historic tax credits – which the company applied for but did not get – and then later said it didn’t.
But according to the PRA, KBK did not originally get minority status because it failed to include a signed equal opportunity form in its application, and that it was KBK’s idea to use historic tax credits in its initial proposal, not the PRA’s.
Haskins called Bass’ discrimination allegation “ludicrous” and said that if there was any evidence of such a claim, KBK should have filed a complaint.
“I understand what’s going on, and I understand who’s responsible for it: Cindy Bass,” Haskins said. “I think [the PRA] has done their best to try and get the building in the hands of a good developer, but they’re blocked at every turn by Cindy Bass.”
According to city campaign finance records, KBK Enterprises made a $2,500 political donation to Bass in 2018. Key and his wife, Donica, personally donated $3,000 each to Bass’s campaign in 2019.
Mayor Jim Kenney, who appoints the PRA’s board, called the Y’s development “a matter of great concern for the City.”
“The development process is complex and varies greatly due to a number of factors,” he continued. “It is not unusual for a project to take many years to come to fruition so I want to thank the residents for their patience. Although the City’s PRA/PHDC cannot comment on pending applications, we are committed to keeping the public informed when progress is made. I hope a solution is found soon, and the process to develop can begin.”
In September, Bass blocked the PRA’s attempt to find a new developer for the project. She remains committed to keeping KBK on the project, and said she expects the company will be able to find financing with the pandemic now out of the way.
“Only now is the development in a position where an appropriate model stands a real chance of gathering state support to put this important asset back into a position where the community can benefit,” she said.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, Thomas was asked whether the PRA will “ever be in a position where you can terminate” the contract with KBK.
“I hope so,” he responded. “I want to see it developed. Everyone on this board wants to see it developed…It's not because we lack the desire to see it completed, we just have some challenges that we have to address.”