Tempers run high over fate of the long vacant Germantown Y

by Tom Beck
Posted 12/27/21

The community’s lack of patience and subsequent action to remove the developer on the project clashed with City Councilmember Cindy Bass’s view that KBK should still be given more time to develop the property.

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Tempers run high over fate of the long vacant Germantown Y

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It was back in 2016 when the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority made its decision. KBK Enterprises, an out-of-town, Black-owned development company based in both Columbus and Pittsburgh, would be the organization in charge of developing the Germantown YWCA, a building that had sat vacant for years. The original plan for KBK was to put 12 one-bedroom units, 12 two-bedroom units, commercial space and retail space in the building, but that proposal later transformed into a mix of 47 units consisting of studios, one bedroom apartments and two bedroom apartments. In any case, the intention was to have the project finished by 2019. For residents of Germantown, it was a celebratory moment for what had previously been an uncelebrated community landmark. 

But years later, KBK has yet to make any progress in the development. As a result, the PRA terminated its negotiations with the developer earlier this month and rescinded its selection of KBK as the proposed developer of the property, largely in response to community backlash over the development’s lack of advancement. 

The community’s lack of patience and subsequent action to remove the developer on the project clashed with City Councilmember Cindy Bass’s view that KBK should still be given more time to develop the property. And that’s precisely why a community meeting between both parties earlier this month became as contentious as it did. 

At the meeting, Bass accused the PRA of treating KBK unfairly amid the process, and postulated that it might have something to do with the fact that KBK is a Black-owned development company.

Bass accuses the PRA of slighting KBK

“The narrative [is] that KBK is somehow incompetent, unable,” said Bass at the meeting. “This is a narrative that I hear over and over and over again when it comes to Black and Brown developers in this city and enough is enough.”

She listed a litany of complaints over how KBK was treated by the PRA. In the early stages of settling on a developer, Bass alleged, the PRA mixed up the minority statuses of the two bidding developers, KBK and Ken Weinstein, who is white.

“We asked to see PRA's scoring for both proposals,” Bass said onstage at the meeting. “We noticed that Ken's score was higher, and it was higher because he was counted as a minority...and furthermore, KBK was scored lower because they were listed as a non-minority.”

(Weinstein, however, said his proposal was first scored with minority status because he had partnered with two local non-profits, both of which are headed by people of color. He said Bass “used her influence” to have the team redefined as a non-minority developer.)

Bass also alleged that the PRA “denied ever receiving the application package” from KBK and made KBK “prove they sent it” to the PRA after submission - something Weinstein didn’t have to do.

“It became a situation where KBK had to prove that they sent [the proposal] in,” said Bass in a phone call after the meeting with the Local. “And then miraculously the PRA found it.”

Another claim Bass made at the meeting was that KBK was sent on what she described as “a wild goose chase” for historic tax credits.

“KBK in Nov. 2017 was told to obtain tax credits to pursue this deal,” she said. “Historical tax credits that were a requirement as per an email from PRA or from Greg Heller, who was running the PRA at that time. They were told to pursue tax credits from November 2017 to June 2020 - two and a half years wasted. Unable to obtain these credits, KBK reached out to the PRA and said ‘we are unable to get the credits that were required.’ Greg Heller's response was that it was not a requirement, it was a suggestion. Two and a half years of wasted time on a suggestion. It's outrageous.”

Her final gripe with the PRA was that it had committed to putting in about $2 million into stabilizing the YWCA in 2015, after the building was deemed imminently dangerous. But the PRA “reneged on its commitment to putting that money in,” she told the Local in a phone call.

“They basically took that money,” she said, “and moved it to a different part of the city.”

As of last week, Bass did not provide the Local with documentation that backs up these claims.

The PRA’s response

When the Local reached out to the PRA to ask about each of Bass’s allegations, it offered its own explanations of how things went down. 

According to PRA spokesperson Jamila Davis, it’s true that KBK wasn’t initially scored as a minority developer. But, she said, that was KBK’s fault and not the PRA’s.

“During the preliminary review, KBK did receive a lower score because they failed to include a signed EOP in their proposal submission,” Davis wrote in an email to the Local, referring to the document that outlines a developer’s minority status. “However…both respondents were given an opportunity to make technical corrections to their proposals.”

As for Weinstein being listed as a minority: “The PRA has no knowledge of this occurring,” Davis said.

In response to Bass’s claim that KBK had to “prove” it sent in the proposal to the PRA, Davis said that the city “has no knowledge of this occurring” either and that “both proposals were reviewed and considered at the same time.”

The “wild goose chase” for tax credits? Again, the PRA sees it differently. 

“KBK was responsible for their financing plan,” said Davis. “KBK included use of Historic Tax Credits in its original proposal submission to the PRA. They chose to include historic tax credits.”

When the Local asked the PRA about Bass’s claim that the city reneged on the $2 million offer it made to stabilize the Y in 2015, it explained that the offer was actually a “loan being contingent on receiving all necessary development approvals and entering into a Redevelopment Agreement.” 

Because of the contingency, the loan was never actually disbursed to KBK because “KBK was not able to provide evidence of committed funding to cover the full costs of their redevelopment budget,” said Davis.

“At no time has the PRA rescinded/reneged on any financial commitment to preserve and rehabilitate the building,” Davis said, more definitively.

In a phone interview after the meeting, Weinstein, who called the meeting “uncomfortable,” said the event contained “a lot of misinformation.”

He said he was “surprised that Cindy Bass took such an aggressive stand defending KBK after six and a half long years of inactivity.” 

Weinstein noted that his initial proposal, which involved building affordable senior housing, would have been a partnership with nonprofits Mission First Housing Group and Center in the Park. Both of these organizations, he said, are “headed by people of color.”

“So I found it very interesting,” Weinstein said, “when Cindy used her influence to have us redefined as a non-minority developer.”

Furthermore, Weinstein said that Bass’s defense of KBK stemmed from picking “her preferred developer” six and a half years ago.

“She is going to stick with him,” he said. “Anything else would make her look bad.”

Bass’s defence of KBK also seemed odd to Germantown resident and community activist Yvonne Haskins. 

“What’s weird to me is the loyalty [to KBK],” said Haskins. “When she’s not loyal enough to her constituents to listen.”

KBK Enterprises made a $2,500 political donation to Bass in 2018, according to city campaign finance records. KBK’s owner, Keith B. Key personally donated $3,000 to Bass in 2019. (Full disclosure: Chestnut Hill Local board member and local developer Richard Snowden has also donated a total of $6,000 to Bass since 2018.)

Not a level playing field for Black developers

The crux of Bass’s argument is that Black developers don’t always seem to get the respect they deserve. And that lack of respect is suspicious. At the meeting, some Black members of the community echoed her sentiment.

“It's not a level playing field [for Black developers],” said resident Jihad Ali at the meeting. “I support the councilwoman in making sure that that field is level with this development…At the end of the day, we have to give African-American developers more patience and more opportunities because you can't understand real estate without knowing the history of real estate. You have to know the color of law and how that affects our community.”

Bass said she is “tired” of people making excuses for people not knowing that history.

“I get so tired of hearing people saying "Will you just move on? Can you just forget about what happened in the past? Can you just act like it didn't happen? Can you just keep it moving and look at the future? Things will get better. Times will get better," she said. “It continues over and over again and things don't get better unless you deal with them.

Anthony Fullard, a Black developer born-and-raised in Germantown, said that at the end of the day, the difficulties for Black developers come down to funding.

“I have a hard time getting through the funding process to get access to the money I need to get started,” he said. “White developers don’t have to go through that. Their capital is readily available for them to start their process and they get the cash.”

It’s an issue that’s nothing new, Fullard explained, and stems from the government depriving Black people of economic opportunities for hundreds of years.

“This has not just started here since the renaissance of development in Philadelphia,” he said. “This starts with the systemic racism in this country and the systemic racism in the government.”

But some in the PRA’s camp who support finding a new developer still see Bass’s desire to prioritize a KBK because he is Black as disingenuous.

It’s not that people don’t want a Black developer on the project, Haskins argued, it’s that KBK had its chance and things clearly just haven’t worked out.

“Every white and Black person wants to see a Black developer on that building,” she said. “But we want a competent developer who’s going to be able to qualify.”

“Cindy uses the race card,” said Haskins, who is Black. “She does race baiting whenever she’s fighting in Germantown because you have a small white community and everybody wants it to stay 80 percent black.”

Furthermore, Haskins found KBK’s absence from the community meeting curious.

“If you’ve been discriminated against,” she said, “you would’ve yelled to the rooftops that you’ve been discriminated against.”

KBK declined to comment for this article when the Local asked the development company for its side of the argument.

In any case, Anne Fadullon, the current executive director of the PRA and Heller’s successor, said that the termination letter sent to KBK had nothing to do with his minority status. 

“It was because they were not able to move the ball forward and there were a lot of reasons for that,” she said. “It's been six years. It's been a long time.”

The PRA asked KBK to provide the agency with its “other financing commitments,” Fadullon continued, “and they weren't able to produce those financing commitments, and so it was not clear there was going to be a development path going forward with them.”

A Brief history of the Y

The Y was “not just a beloved historic building,” Garlen Capita, a Germantown resident who is also an urban designer and landscape designer, said at the meeting. “It is beloved for the role it played as a community hub for decades across generations.”

The building, which was designated to the city’s Register of Historic Places in 1984, was occupied by the YWCA for nearly a century after being built in 1914. Then it was sold to Germantown Settlement, which went bankrupt in 2010. The building, repossessed by the PRA, then sat vacant for years. It has also faced arson and was declared imminently dangerous in 2012.

The sad and sorry state of 5722 Germantown Ave. has no doubt failed to honor what Capita called the Y’s “history of inclusion, women's empowerment, anti-ageism and anti-racism.”

“The Germantown YWCA is a critical piece in the puzzle of revitalizing Germantown Avenue,” Councilmember Cindy Bass said at the time. “Once this beautiful community asset is brought back to life, we believe it will catalyze other development and investment along Germantown Avenue.”

KBK was originally chosen with some help from Bass. When the PRA’s request for proposals was initially sent out, Weinstein was the only bidder. Bass wasn’t sold on the plan, and Weinstein’s proposal, which involved turning the Y into a 50-unit complex for low-income seniors in conjunction with nearby nonprofits Mission First Housing and Center in the Park, was rejected. 

“I asked the PRA to send [the RFP] back out, which is not uncommon because we only had one bid,” she said at the meeting. “We had heard through our office of so many people who said they were interested in the Y, so what else is out there?”

Then the building sat. And sat. And sat some more. 

It wasn’t until the bid was reissued that KBK submitted its proposal to the PRA. When it was selected, neighbors were thrilled a plan was put in motion to develop the property.

“That was a very different time than it is right now, when there is a development happening on every corner of Germantown,” said Capita. “People were desperate to have development back in Germantown because there was very little happening.”

But as time went by and KBK failed to make progress, neighbors’ jubilation turned to frustration.

“Community members… were frustrated by the inaction,” said Capita. “If KBK could not redevelop the site in five plus years, we have no confidence in their ability or commitment to move forward and another developer needed to be brought to the table.”

As a result, neighbors created the Friends of the Restoration of the Germantown YWCA, which, according to Capita, organized a letter writing campaign to the mayor, a petition drive with almost 1,200 signatures and speak-outs by Germantown residents at PRA board meetings “to say 'enough is enough.'”

In early December, residents’ complaints were what jolted the PRA into taking action. 

So, what’s the plan now?

Despite the situation, Fadullon said, KBK could conceivably re-apply for an RFP and be awarded the project again. 

If another RFP was issued, Weinstein said he had “no idea” if he’d reapply. 

Based on Fadullon’s responses at the meeting, an RFP doesn’t seem to be coming any time soon.

“We can issue an RFP, but I don't think we're at that stage yet,” she said. “I think we want to hear more from what the community has to say.”

But the meeting, which could have been an opportunity for the community to have its say on that very matter, mostly centered around the debate over how KBK was treated by the PRA.

Meanwhile, the Germantown Y continues to sit vacant. And time keeps ticking.

Correction: The photograph that accompanied the print version of this article incorrectly showed the Germantown Life Enrichment Center, which is located on Greene Street, on the other side of Vernon Park from the Germantown YWCA.

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