Agreement signed for state’s $2M sale of EPPI site to NewCourtland

Troy Thompson, press secretary for the Department of General Services, said NewCourtland offered $2.1 million for the property, which was the highest of the three bids received by the state.

“Folks feel like they’ve been blindsided.”
–State Rep. Pamela DeLissio

“We are in the information-gathering process with regard to what exactly is happening.”
–Barnaby Wittels, president, East Falls Community Council

“We build campuses with affordable housing, administrative offices, and senior centers. That’s the kind of work we are doing. That’s all we can say [regarding plans for the Henry Avenue property].” 
–Pam Mammarella, vice president for marketing and government affairs, NewCourtland

The next phase for the imposing building that had been Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute in East Falls is underway — and it is not what the surrounding communities had in mind.

A bid by NewCourtland Senior Services has been accepted by the state Department of General Services, according to Pam Mammarella, NewCourtland’s vice president for marketing and government affairs.

NewCourtland provides affordable housing, community-based services and nursing care for senior citizens.

“We have a historic mission of going where the need is,” said Mammarella, who added that she could not offer details about the company’s plans for the EPPI site at 3232 Henry Ave.

Winning-bid details

Troy Thompson, press secretary for the Department of General Services, said NewCourtland offered $2.1 million for the property.

That was the highest of the three bids received by the state. The two lower bids came from private limited-liability companies, he said, but had no other information about their plans.

The property is “currently under agreement and moving forward toward settlement” with NewCourtland, Thompson said last week.

“The agreement of sale has been signed,” he said, “but it’s still making the rounds for Commonwealth signatures.”

Neighbors’ concerns

Leaders of the surrounding East Falls, Nicetown, Ridge Avenue, Allegheny and Hunting Park civic groups have tried for years to work with government officials to ensure a residential and retail redevelopment of the site.

They did not want to see the mid-century monolith on Henry Avenue turned into another social services institution.

“Folks feel like they’ve been blindsided,” said state Rep. Pamela DeLissio, whose district officially will include the site as of Dec. 1.

DeLissio and community leaders are still trying to find out how the bidding for the property was conducted and what can still be done to address their concerns.

Thompson said DGS “always works with the communities and elected officials. They all had access to the bidding information via our website.”

History of the property

The Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute property — which consisted of 14 acres and several towering buildings — was authorized by the state in 1949. It was part of the state hospital system.

As the patient population was reduced across the state in the 1970s, facilities closed. EPPI was shut down in 1981. Operations at the site were then transferred to the Medical College of Pennsylvania, which continued to use the property’s main building as a psychiatric facility until 2006.

In 2008, the property was leased to the city to temporarily house the Youth Study Center until a new building was ready in 2013.

As part of the Corbett administration’s plan to sell surplus property to generate revenue, the vacant EPPI property was put up for bid in June 2013. It was promoted for its convenient location to highways and mass transit and a development opportunity to “serve as an improvement to the surrounding communities as well.”

But the property did not receive a successful bid.

In March of this year, the 322,262 square-foot main building was put out for bid again by DGS, with a deadline of July 17 for all offers.

Community vision

The bid from NewCourtland came to public attention in mid-October, when the East Falls Community Council got wind of the sale.

Council President Barnaby Wittels said he learned of the NewCourtland offer from another community member. He said EFCC had not been notified of the transaction by the state, and that elected officials he spoke with also were unaware of the bid.

Wittels said he had not seen any plans from NewCourtland for the site.

“We are in the information-gathering process with regard to what exactly is happening,” he said.

A multi-community alliance was formed years ago to respond to a proposal to build a casino on the Henry Avenue property.

“That morphed into a group interested in the EPPI site when it was to be temporarily used as the youth facility,” Wittels said

Legislation was created — and since elapsed — to ensure any potential buyer would have to meet with the alliance, which included representatives from East Falls, Ridge Avenue, Hunting Park and other groups.

“The multi-community alliance stated as its preference a mixed use of housing and commercial for the property,” Wittels said. “That goal hasn’t changed.”

A 2010 study of the Hunting Park West region by the planning and design firm Wallace Roberts and Todd looked at specific sites for redevelopment and recommended best uses for them.

It envisioned the Henry Avenue corridor as mixed-use development with “ground floor retail amenities” and residential and retail uses for the redevelopment of the former EPPI building.

Evolving vision

Community member Meg Greenfield said residents have been working with the city Planning Commission since 2007 to find a market-rate mixed use for the EPPI property.

“The site is high, large and would be a wonderful location for a mixed-use development,” she said. “It’s well-located and there’s a new shopping center near there.”

The current bid “doesn’t provide housing or retail, which is what would really be good there,” she said.

After years of litigation, correspondence with elected officials, and community proposals for the site, “this is short-sighted,” Greenfield said. “This was supposed to be developed in coordination with community input.”

Thompson, of DGS, said the state had not made any agreements with community or elected leaders to bar other institutions from purchasing the property.

“If we had any stipulations, they would have been included in the bid documents,” he said. “When we put it up for bid, it was advertised in local newspapers, and no one questioned the bid documents.”

NewCourtland’s plans

NewCourtland grew out of services provided at Presbyterian Hospital and traces its name to a Civil War casualty whose father established the hospital.

When Presbyterian became part of the University of Pennsylvania Health System in 1995, NewCourtland was created to address the needs of the city’s aging population, Mammarella said.

“This organization took over the most beleaguered, bankrupt nursing homes and turned them into homes where you could say you were comfortable having family members there,” she said.

The organization transferred ownership of most of the nursing homes in recent years to “focus time and energy and talent into development of more stable and rigorous home- and community-based models,” she said.

NewCourtland continues to maintain a nursing home at 6950 Germantown Ave. and senior apartments at 127 W. Gorgas Lane in Mt. Airy.

“We build campuses with affordable housing, administrative offices, and senior centers. That’s the kind of work we are doing. That’s all we can say” regarding plans for the Henry Avenue property, Mammarella said.

Rep. DeLissio noted that she comes from a background in long-term care and that she is familiar with NewCourtland.

“I will try to get all the players together, and I will see what opportunity there is to gather information and share it with all the parties,” DeLissio said. “Then, we can figure out what we can do at this point. I just ask people to not make assumptions until we find out.”

NewsWorks has partnered with independent news gatherer PlanPhilly to provide regular, in-depth, timely coverage of planning, zoning and development news. Contact Alan Jaffe atajaffe@planphilly.com.

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