Dissension arises among Germantown neighbors at Potter’s Field meeting

If all went according to the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s plan to replace the Queen Lane Apartments, residents could have been moving into the 55 new low-rise units this summer.

But, as a required historic review wraps up, demolition likely won’t begin until late this year. From there, construction is expected to take about a year.

In the meantime, a local architect and members of the Northwest Neighbors of Germantown community group are urging PHA to consider several alternative designs for the development.

Patience worn thin

However, Corliss Gray and some other neighbors who live near the empty tower are tired of waiting.

The longtime Queen Lane resident wants the new housing project to move forward so residents can return to the site, as PHA promised.

First, though, she wants the site cleaned up and mowed, and the piles of dirt left from March archaeological digs removed.

The holes are open in case any additional examinations were needed, but neighbors say the dirt, at least, has to go.

“When you live there, the dirt blows, and it blows into your house,” she told project officials Thursday at the latest meeting held by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to update stakeholders on the historic review.

Site report

Archaeologists Ken Basalik and Philip Ruth presented a report prepared after the site dig. It included research on the history of the 18th-century Potter’s Field that once existed on much of the current PHA Queen Lane site.

As NewsWorks has reported, neither ground-penetrating radar nor subsequent digs revealed any human remains outside the traditional boundaries of the burial ground.

They provided a full archaeological survey for the Queen Lane site, including photos of the digs and a 1930 photo of the neighborhood showing homes laid out around the open field in a pattern nearly identical to PHA’s current plan (PDF).

Historical review and research

The research shows that the Potter’s Field was at the center of a neighborhood issue in the early 20th century, when the area had become overgrown and the city’s Poor Board was unsure what to do with it.

By the 1930s, it had become a playground, and in the mid-1950s, the city put the apartment tower atop the Potter’s Field and several adjacent parcels — except the lot at Queen Lane and Priscilla Street, then a tavern and now and empty lot.

Their report was done as part of the so-called Section 106 Review, required when federal dollars are used on sites with historic significance.

From here, an agreement will be compiled. It will contain all the research on the project so far, along with a set of procedures to be followed in case any remains are found during demolition or construction.

Only then, when the agreement has been accepted and signed off on by the National Park Service, can preparation for the building implosion begin.

Alternatives presented

In the meantime, a local architect and members of a neighborhood civic group presented the PHA and HUD officials with their own versions of possible housing at Queen Lane.

Like many recent PHA high-rise conversions, the planned version includes low-rise rental apartment units, laid out in a U-shape around the Potter’s Field area.

Architect Peter DiCarlo brought along his own projector on which to show his alternative versions of a new Queen Lane site.

He showed three versions of a site plan, with varying building heights and massing. DiCarlo’s version also include on-site parking, a new playground and four for-sale townhouses near Priscilla Street.

The architect is involved with several area groups, including the Germantown Historical Society, who had concerns about PHA’s plans, but said he was not hired by anyone or working on anyone’s behalf.

“The neighborhood groups I was involved with were resistant to letting it go forward before these issues are resolved,” DiCarlo said, calling his effort “simply an attempt to suggest that there might be other ways to look at the site.”

Response from the feds

Monica Hawkins, the HUD division director who has been the federal agency’s local point person on the project, was polite if unencouraging.

“The only plan that is on the table right now is the PHA plan,” she said.

That plan is unlikely to change at this point, said Michael Johns, the housing agency’s director of capital projects and development.

PHA has spent $1,112,600 on the Queen Lane replacement project, and their plans have approvals from the city Planning Commission, zoning board and Streets Department, Johns said.

Neighborhood divide

Some neighbors weren’t so receptive to DiCarlo’s efforts and are pushing back against the Germantown civic groups and activists, who they now say are trying to stall the project.

“They were opposed to the process from the beginning,” said Neil Blunt.

Gray said many of the groups critical of PHA’s process don’t represent immediate neighbors or Queen Lane residents.

“There was no bones, no bodies,” she said. “Now something’s wrong with the design. What do you want? You’re not going to prevent those 55 units from going up.”

NewsWorks has partnered with independent news gatherer PlanPhilly to provide regular, in-depth, timely coverage of planning, zoning and development news. Contact Amy Z. Quinn at azquinn@planphilly.com.

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