A Germantown neighborhood faces change

Where Bringhurst and Laurens streets meet, and at the other end, McKean Avenue – the three blocks make up a perfect capital H that’s pretty close to cut off from the rest of the world. Long time residents there worry the neighborhood is slipping away house by house.

Every inch of those blocks is paved by yellow and red bricks, and every home set high on either side is a towering three story twin from the 1940s. Walking through this quiet residential community that’s sandwiched between the posh Germantown Cricket Club and the foothills of PHA’s soon to be demolished Queen Lane Apartments, is like a trip back in time.

But there is a trend here – these old houses, many of them, are dying.

The city’s licenses and inspections posted candy striped cease and desist orders late last month outside of 439 Bringhurst Street, and a few doors up, on 445 as well.  They demanded a stoppage to the renovation work going on at both locations. Around the corner a bright orange order to repair sign hung on 5225 McKean, an abandoned shell, because the chimney of the building is ready to collapse.

Wayne Allen, the block captain on McKean has seen it all before.

“We’ve been here since like ’69 and what happened here, most of the parents died and left the property to the kids,” he said. “And for whatever reason the kids don’t keep them up or can’t keep them up.”

With big houses like this, he says, you have to do something major at least once a year to stay in front of the maintenance.

Allen and a close neighbor on Bringhurst, Ezekiel Smalls, see a new influx of absentee owners snatching up these homes at low prices and converting them into multi-unit apartment buildings as a bad sign for the neighborhood. They think that is what’s going on at the two Bringhurst locations, and they would rather see the homes remain single family dwellings as the R5 zoning calls for.

“They are not local, they are coming from wherever. They’re buying them because they can get them at certain prices,” said Smalls. “The renovation isn’t the problem, we want to see them be done, but we want to see them as whole houses.”

Smalls, Allen and others say several homes on these blocks were similarly subdivided and renovated years ago, and they are fine with that, but they don’t want to see it happen any more. So both men are glad L&I has taken notice of violations.

The multi-unit renovations at 439 and 445 were stopped because there were no permits for the work. The projects will have to go before the Zoning Board of Appeals and neighbors will have a chance to give their side of things.

Not everyone will be opposed. Steve Robbins, who lives across the street from both homes, agrees the ideal would be to keep the block as single family homes, but he’s more interested in making sure the buildings don’t fall to the ground.

“The bigger picture is getting them fixed up – it’s not going to become an abandoned lot,” he said.

Jazy Stroman, who owns a home in between both properties, is also happy to see the work, multi-unit renovation or not. He hopes construction will start up again soon for the positive impact two fixed up homes could have on his own property values.

“I’m trying to build equity back up in the property,” he said of his own home, which he inherited several years ago.

In two years, Stroman said, his home’s appraisal value has dropped from $169 thousand to $130 thousand, so the question of multi-family or single-family is small potatoes compared to that loss.

“At this point I can’t even sell this, so that don’t even matter to me,” he said.

Neighbors Patrick Crowling and Brandy Doll have a slightly different view. They live in two separate apartments in one of the homes that was converted years ago. They love the neighborhood, but neither one has roots here. Both say part of the appeal of moving here has been the affordability compared to places like Manayunk, where Doll recently moved from.

Their building is connected to 5225 McKean, the shell. Though Crowling said that’s certainly not a selling point, “I would never be able to afford my giant apartment if there wasn’t an abandoned building next door.”

The owners of 5225 McKean and 439 and 445 Bringhurst could not be reached for comment.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.