Conservatorship approved to stabilize Chinese Cultural Center

The Chinese Cultural Center’s richly ornamented, timeworn façade lords over 10th Street just north of the Friendship Gate. It is one of Chinatown’s most expressive buildings, but its wood balconies and brackets are fragile, jade green roof tiles have slipped loose, bricks at the cornice line are displaced, tall windows on the upper floors are open to the elements, and graffiti is spreading across the facade. The building has been unused since the center closed in 2007, despite some false starts to rehab and reuse the building in the last decade. Preservation advocates added the building to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 2013, concerned for its longevity. It has seen brighter days.

But last week the Court of Common Pleas approved a plan to set this building on a new course under the state’s conservatorship law, Act 135. The law enables court-supervised interventions to resolve unsafe conditions and code violations by a responsible party at properties where an owner is unwilling or unable to do so. A judge must first find that a property satisfies distinct conditions to be called blighted and abandoned, and may then appoint a conservator to stabilize the property and approve a plan make it safe. Judge Idee Fox found that the property met enough of the necessary negative property conditions, and appointed the nonprofit Scioli Turco as conservator, and approved a plan to repair and seal the building exterior, resolving property violations and safety concerns. Once that work is substantially complete Judge Fox will approve a plan to market the buidling for sale to a new owner.

First District Councilman Mark Squilla said he approached Scioli Turco last year to consider conservatorship of the Chinese Cultural Center after hearing concerns about the landmark building’s condition from Chinatown residents. Scioli Turco, a 501(c)4 nonprofit that has undertaken about two dozen Philadelphia projects under Act 135, filed for conservatorship of the building in January.  

In testimony at last week’s hearing, Michael Farley, an inspector with the Department of Licenses and Inspections, said he went into the building the day before. It is gutted but structurally sound, he said. There are areas of the façade he found to be unsafe, however, particularly loose wood elements applied to the façade and areas of masonry. He said the front balconies are loose, meaning some pieces could fall to the sidewalk or street below, but that these were not in danger of collapse. The building has had unresolved violations for these conditions since 2014.

Scioli Turco’s Joel Palmer outlined the stabilization plan for Judge Fox: A contractor will replace missing windows and failing doors, repair unsafe masonry conditions, restore (or replicate if it is unsalvageable) the façade’s elaborate carved and painted woodwork, waterproof the roof, and perform some minor safety improvements on the interior. The Philadelphia Historical Commission must approve all exterior work because the building is designated. The work, Palmer said, is self-financed.

Palmer said his general contractor estimated 90 days to do the work. Judge Fox requested a progress report at 60 days, at which point they would also discuss how to market the property for resale.

Since the property is owned by a functionally inactive nonprofit trust, the profits from any sale – after Scioli Turco recoups its costs and any liens are paid off – would be distributed at the discretion of the state Attorney General’s office. In similar cases the Attorney General’s office has given profits to other organizations that serve the same community.

Among those concerned with the building’s future, there is a shared conceptual hope that it will continue to serve a community purpose and be a space of cultural expression.

“It’s such an iconic building with a very clear history of its use and purpose,” said John Chin, executive director of Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC). “There was a very, very strong community purpose for that building. In tribute and honor to the community work within that building I think one of the visions would be a wonderful educational museum that pays tribute to what that building did for Chinatown.”

The cultural center was the life’s work of T.T. Chang, a powerful force of Chinatown’s past. He helped open the Chinatown YMCA on the second floor of the building at 125 N. 10th Street in 1955. He bought the building in 1966, and subsequently established it as the Chinatown Cultural Center, which became a vibrant community hub. In 1971 Chang had the Taiwanese-made façade elements applied to the 1830s building – an installation of Chinese cultural pride that predates the Friendship Gate by 13 years.

The building is still owned by a nonprofit trust that lists Mr. Chang’s widow Victoria as the sole officer. The nonprofit has been inactive over the last decade. According to court testimony, the elderly Mrs. Chang is infirm and her son Wan, who lives in California, has power of attorney over her affairs. The family did not contest the conservatorship filing.

Councilman Mark Squilla met with stakeholders this spring, including PCDC and other organizations in Chinatown, and said there is broad agreement that the building needs attention and that its future use should have be community oriented. “We want to preserve it. We want to make sure the building is safe and keep a cultural or community operation as a use, whoever gets control of it,” he said in a brief interview last month.

Preservation advocates are cautiously optimistic, hoping the forthcoming repairs are faithful to the building and that a future owner will bring it stability and a new public purpose.

“We’d love to see the building brought back to productive use,” said Patrick Grossi, advocacy director for the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, which advanced the building’s nomination to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. Grossi suggested that a joint venture between a commercial use that generates income to maintain the building and some sort of community-oriented nonprofit use could strike the right balance.

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