Fairhill neighborhood plan to mitigate Conrail line and bolster community

The no man’s land of decay and drugs that runs along the Conrail rail line in Kensington may have been a revelation to Philadelphia Inquirer readers, but it’s been at the forefront of the community’s mind for years.

At Tuesday’s meeting of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, Laura Ahramjian of KSK Architects presented a plan for the larger Fairhill neighborhood crafted by the Hispanic Association of Contractors and Enterprises (HACE).

Although the proposal covers the whole neighborhood, it was the Conrail line came to the foreground again and again throughout Tuesday’s discussion.

“The most important thing you’ll be hearing a lot about throughout the presentation is the Conrail line,” said Ashley Richards, of the Planning Commission’s staff. “There was just an extensive article about this and the high amount of drug activity that occurs here. A big focus of our plan is coming up with strategies to mitigate the negative effects of that drug activity.”

In most areas along the Conrail line there is a 200-foot buffer area on either side of the rail. The areas with the most drug activity is very deeply inset in the ground, obscuring any activity from watchers on the street.

As a result, the sunken area became the locus of drug activity in the neighborhood, which is already home to the greatest concentration of heroin sale and use in the city. On Sunday, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported tens of thousands of used needles litter the ground around makeshift encampments. “A lot of people die down here,” one addict told the reporters.

Cleaning up this heroin gulch is at the top of HACE’s agenda. New fencing and even walls are proposed to keep interlopers off of the private stretch of land as it runs diagonally through the neighborhood. New lighting and vegetation will be brought to the buffer area beyond the fencing.

In the renderings, a man with a sweater slung over his shoulders strolls along a shaded sidewalk flanked by healthy green grass. Just beyond is the fenced-off access to Conrail’s land.

Along the Conrail tracks, planners reimagine Gurney Street | KSK

“We are looking at ways to change the physical environment to deter crime,” said Ahramjian. The planners are also “looking at community members to be involved, to have that collective eye on the street, that collective feeling of ownership around their neighborhood. Currently it’s felt that that the drug dealers are the real owners of the space.”

HACE’s planning process began in October of 2015 and the heroin-plagued rail line featured prominently from the beginning. Of the five community meetings held, two focused on it exclusively.

Two stakeholders from Conrail were on the steering committee for HACE’s plan. Ahramjian said they attended every meeting.

“Did they make any commitments to remediate any of the situations that are occurring on their privately-owned property,” asked commission member Christopher Rupe, who represents the city’s Managing Director’s office.

It is as yet unclear, Ahramjian said, although the company is in talks with the city and with district councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez.

“They were very open to the ideas being discussed,” said Ahramjian. “They recognized this was a huge problem that Conrail hadn’t been focusing on and they need to be a part of it. But it was never explicit exactly what they would do about it.”

The other elements of HACE’s plan include rezoning much of the area from RM-1 multifamily to RSA-5 single family attached, to reflect the single family rowhouse nature of the neighborhood. (Many such neighborhoods were zoned for denser housing in the 1950s, when the city’s then-population of over 2 million was expected to keep growing.)

A community school is proposed for the size of the recently closed Fairhill High School. Currently the closest high school is Thomas Edison to the west, and the community school model could be used to bring more opportunities for wraparound services to the neighborhood, including job training, medical services, or after-school programming.

There’s a housing component to HACE’s plan as well, including a series of scattered-site developments where the organization’s members could acquire property and rehabilitate homes for affordable housing.

Even in these other elements of the plan, the presentation turned back to Conrail. A mixed-use apartment building for seniors at 2nd and Indiana is described as a potential positive anchor overlooking the gorge. Investment in Hope Playground is seen as a countermeasure against the drug dealers who currently use the space as a lookout post to warn of advancing police.

PCPC recommended acceptance of HACE’s neighborhood plan. The neighborhood will also be part of the North District Plan, which will kick off at a community meeting on Thursday night at The Lenfest Center (3890 North 10th Street) starting at 6:30. Richards is the planner in charge of the North District Plan.

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