A new civic group with the potential power to influence development in both Mt. Airy and Germantown has community leaders worried.
A newly registered civic group with the potential power to influence development in both Mt. Airy and Germantown has recently been approved by the city planning commission – and community leaders are worried.
KECO CDC, created by West Mt. Airy resident Keith Coleman, was formally approved as a registered community organization (RCO) by the city in June. As such, it can organize community input on neighborhood development projects that require city zoning variances and could therefore have a significant influence on the process.
Coleman owns a number of properties in Germantown, including K&A Insurance Agency and the historic Thomas C. Potter House, both of which are located on the 5900 block of Greene Street. His new civic group has claimed a territory that includes all of Germantown and all of Mt. Airy’s main business corridor along Germantown Avenue.
When the Local reached out to Coleman for this story, he said that KECO is a foundation in West Germantown and West Mt. Airy that “feeds, educates and clothes.” He would not explain why he started his new RCO but did say that he is a business owner who has “a vested interest in the development that’s going on in this community.”
“I’m interested in my community,” he said in the phone call. “I’m not interested in giving you more information.”
One of the primary functions of RCOs is to facilitate public meetings for development proposals that require community input, which the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment considers when granting or denying variances for development proposals. Those proposals are assigned to RCOs by District City Councilmember Cindy Bass.
In an email forwarded to the Local, Bass’ chief of staff Charles Richardson told one local RCO that Bass would “not be giving [KECO] any cases to manage.” In an emailed statement to the Local, however, Richardson would not confirm that comment.
Leaders of other more established RCOs within that territory say they question the legitimacy of a group that does not appear to hold city-mandated public meetings, has no online presence and is led by a man they consider to be a relative unknown in both communities.
The “whole purpose” of an RCO is to be “a liaison between the developer and the near neighbors,” said East Mt. Airy Neighbors president Linda Bell. “I don’t understand how [KECO] has the capacity to fulfill that.”
They also question the timing.
Coleman’s RCO was approved in the same month that the Philadelphia Historical Commission listed the Potter house, which dates back to 1892, on its historic register. The property, which has most recently been used as a banquet hall, is zoned RM-2 and sits on just under half an acre of land.
Coleman opposed the historic designation, and according to city spokesperson Bruce Bohri, is currently scheduled to appeal that decision in the Court of Common Pleas. A date for that hearing has not yet been set.
“To me, it’s just fishy,” said Suzanne Ponsen, board president of West Central Germantown Neighbors.
A question of rules
According to the Philadelphia City Code, RCOs must hold regular meetings and publicly announce them “through media such as flyers, newsletters, newspaper notice, or electronic or social media.”
It is unclear whether KECO holds such meetings.
The group’s application materials assert that it holds regular meetings at the Potter House on the fourth Tuesday of every month at 6 p.m.
However, when the Local tried to attend the October meeting, the building appeared vacant. Some of the windows were boarded up, the doors were locked and there were no cars in the parking lot. A phone number for the banquet hall had been scratched off both sides of the sign in front and neighbors said that, apart from occasional weekend flea markets that are located in the yard, the building doesn’t get much use.
When asked why the doors of his building were locked at the time the meeting was supposed to have occurred, Coleman abruptly hung up the phone. He also didn’t respond to a follow-up email.
Numerous civic and political leaders in both neighborhoods told the Local they’d never seen any announcements for public meetings organized by KECO, which doesn’t appear to have social media channels.
“I've never seen any flyers,” said Patrick Jones, leader of the 59th Democratic ward. “I tried to see if he had a Facebook page but didn’t see one.”
A relative unknown
When the Local contacted Coleman by phone, he said that Bass, State Sen. Art Haywood, former District Councilmember Donna Reed Miller and West Mt. Airy Neighbors (WMAN) zoning committee chair Ralph Pinkus all knew him and knew of his community outreach.
Haywood subsequently told the Local that “Keith Coleman is not a name that I can recollect.” Miller confirmed that he was active in the community, but said she had “no idea” why he would start an RCO. And Pinkus has since asked the City Planning Commission to investigate his application.
“All I know is he’s been a neighbor of mine for a long time,” Pinkus said.
In an email to the Local, Richardson said that Coleman was “well-known throughout the community” for being “a long-time local businessman.”
However, more than a dozen community leaders the Local has spoken to have disputed this.
“No one I have spoken to knows anything about the history of his organization or who he represents,” said Ken Weinstein, board chair of the Mt. Airy BID. “For some reason the [Planning Commission] was willing to assign him and his organization a massive geographic area that there’s no way he could represent.”
A question of size and mission
KECO’s boundaries contain 17,578 parcels, which is the most in either neighborhood. Germantown’s Faith CDC, which has a parcel count of 16,336, is the only RCO that comes close to KECO’s size.
By comparison, East Mt. Airy Neighbors (EMAN) boundaries include 7,189 parcels, SoLo Germantown’s contains 6,237, WMAN’s contains 5,019, and West Central Germantown Neighbors contains 1,012.
The organization also appears to be designed for more than community zoning hearings. According to its application, KECO also considers itself a community development corporation, or CDC, which would make it eligible for certain publicly funded grants.
CDCs, which are nonprofits, are typically formed to carry out neighborhood functions such as “community engagement, housing counseling and [work] to revitalize commercial corridors,” said Rick Sauer, executive director of the Philadelphia Association of CDCs (PACDC).
The Local hasn’t found any evidence that KECO, which isn’t a member of the PACDC, engages in these activities.
“Sometimes a for-profit starts a CDC because they think they’ll get more resources,” Sauer said. “Anybody can create a nonprofit and incorporate if they want.”
Process and oversight
In an emailed response to Pinkus’ request for an investigation, senior environmental planner at the Planning Commission Ian Hegarty said that as long as an RCO applicant demonstrates the required organizational structure in their bylaws and commits to follow RCO requirements around regular, open, public meetings, the Planning Commission “will approve the registration application.”
Bohri told the Local that the Planning Commission “does not regularly conduct investigations on the activities of RCOs,” nor does it “monitor RCO activity.”
But if the Planning Commission does find that an RCO fails to meet its obligations, Bohri said, the organization would be subject to sanctions that can include revocation of its RCO status.
WMAN president Steve Kendall said he hopes Bass never assigns KECO a zoning variance case and that all the upset turns out to be “a tempest in a teapot.”
But others, like Weinstein, are more concerned.
“If we allow any organization that doesn’t have long-standing membership and backing from the community to hold zoning hearings, then we’re diluting the purpose of all RCOs,” he said. “West Central Germantown Neighbors, WMAN, EMAN and so on have been in existence for years and have worked to establish themselves in the community, but if new RCOs without that community backing are allowed to exist, then the longstanding ones will have less say in the RCO process.”