The Philadelphia Housing Authority has won a $1.3 million federal grant that will allow the cash-strapped agency to get started on an ambitious plan to redevelop Bartram Village, a 500-unit apartment complex bordering Bartram’s Garden along the Schuylkill River in Southwest Philadelphia.
Built in 1942 to house workers building World War 2 warships and weapons, Bartram’s low-rise, brick buildings are among the oldest in the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s system, and in desperate need of an estimated $100 million in repairs.
The Department of Housing and Development’s (HUD) Choice Neighborhoods grant, announced on Monday, will kickstart a two-year planning process that could result in the demolition and replacement of the buildings.
“It is possible, as with any site that is over 70 years old,” said Kyle Flood, senior advisor to Kelvin Jeremiah, the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s president. “That [demolition] would be something that would be foolish of us not to look at. But all options are on the table.”
Flood said that the housing authority plans to replace every unit and guarantee residents the right of return, regardless of whether the existing buildings are torn down.
“It would be the opposite of losing units,” said Flood. “Similar to what we are doing in Sharswood, the baseline would be preserving public housing units and increasing the number of affordable and market rate units. But right now, we are just looking at feasibility and planning around what funding sources are available.”
The redevelopment of the public housing complex has been in the works for several years. In 2017, PHA entered into a predevelopment agreement with Penrose Properties, which has redeveloped other PHA public housing complexes including Martin Luther King Development in the Hawthorne neighborhood just south of Center City.
For months, rumors about redevelopment, demolition, and an infusion of mixed-income housing have been circulating the close-knit, multi-generational community, which contains one, two and three-bedroom units for families as well as designated senior housing. Fears of displacement run high.
Asia Coney, head of PHA’s Resident Advisory Board, said that it is essential for Bartram’s residents to be actively involved in the planning process. She confirms that one-for-one replacement of units, and a right of return to the neighborhood, have been guaranteed by the housing authority.
She predicts that the existing buildings will come down.
“There’s been discussion about literally tearing it down, and there’s also been discussion of redeveloping it,” said Coney. “But with this $1.3 million planning grant, it will lean more towards tearing it down and rebuilding it, which will cause need for relocation.”
The Choice Neighborhoods program was a signature program of the Obama administration, intended to help cities redevelop public housing communities into mixed-income, transit-accessible neighborhoods complete with amenities such as schools, parks, healthcare providers, and shops.
But critics of the program have noted that its broader scope has not come with an expansion of federal funding. Now housing authorities are being asked to do more, even rebuilding entire neighborhoods, with a whole lot less.
At the bucolic, riverside Bartram site, there are also environmental issues to take into account. The two years of planning will include consideration of drainage issues, ADA-accessibility and floodplain issues, Flood said. But all of that is in the future.
“We don’t have answers for what it will eventually look like down there,” he said.
Another injection of federal money seems unlikely, at least in the near future. Even HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s pet project is only getting $2 million, the New York Times reported this week. Washington has been retreating from funding public housing since the beginning of the 21st century. More recently, the Trump administration proposed eliminating the repair budget entirely.
President Donald Trump has also said he plans to eliminate the Choice Neighborhoods program funding this early phase of the Bartram’s development. The project was one of only three successful awardees from the most recent grant round. In earlier rounds, the program sent $500,000 to PHA for the redevelopment of the Sharswood neighborhood in North Philadelphia and $30 million to help repair the Norris Homes near Temple University.