For the proposed replacement of the Germantown Boys and Girls Club, community consensus comes in baby steps

At first glance, the ongoing cacophony over the future of Germantown’s Boys and Girls Club looked ready to hit a rare harmonious note.

About 45 nearby residents and neighborhood organizers gathered Thursday evening in the pews of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church. The meetup was billed as a “bridge-building moment” by the Penn Knox Neighborhood Association, one of the leading critics of the proposal to demolish the 120-year-old club building and replace it with a $20 million, plus-sized, modern facility, but now it seemed that everyone was ready to offer constructive feedback on the things like curb setbacks and tree lines.

Shortly after a presentation began with a look at bird’s eye renderings of the proposed facility, however, the room devolved into the discord that has characterized other Boys and Girls Club dustups in recent months — with a new political chapter that pits the neighborhood’s state representative against its district councilperson.

Nearly everyone agrees that the proposed facility — which includes a state-of-the-art ice hockey rink, a basketball court, rec rooms, and more — would be a boon for the mixed-class neighborhood. But nobody seems to want the beast of a building in their backyard. The debate surrounding the century-old structure has pinched a number of historical nerves, from Germantown’s racial makeup to its endangered historic architecture. For months, detractors have sought historic designation for some sections of the site, which they argue would permit both preservation and expansion, but would likely prevent the proposed redevelopment.* But after a heated, four-hour hearing in May, the Historic Commission decided to postpone its vote and encouraged opposing camps to find a compromise.

Despite attempts at consensus building, the proposal’s location remains a fundamental disagreement. Is slender, one-way Penn Street the most appropriate location for a supersized clubhouse that would quadruple current capacity? The recurring question presented yet another scenario of immovable objects and unstoppable forces at Thursday’s meeting, as the floor was open to critiques of a half dozen site plans — but not the location itself.

Matt Heckendorn of Heckendorn Shiles Architects, which is designing the new building on behalf of the Boys and Girls Club, presented concepts to the group. (The Boys and Girls Club declined to share these mockups with PlanPhilly.) Showing off the various layouts for the site, which is wedged by Coulter Street and Germantown Avenue, between Penn Street and Greene Street, Heckendorn emphasized the schemes that best preserved the Boys and Girls Club’s historic brick and mortar.

Neighbors gather at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church Thursday to consider the Boys and Girls Club proposal
(Max Marin)

“We didn’t really approach the project like, ‘let’s eliminate the building,’” Heckendorn reassured the room, in response to an early interjection about historic preservation. “We were looking at various options.”

The “façade reuse scheme” is one model that would maintain the club’s original façade on Penn Street and Germantown Avenue. More attention was given to the “adaptive reuse model,” which maintains the existing structure but, in Heckendorn’s words, “provides a more generous backdrop from Penn Street” and most closely resembles the current building structure without sacrificing amenities. Both plans also featured a “donut” layout that provides breathing room between the recreational and athletic spaces.

Towards the end of the Heckendorn’s PowerPoint slideshow, interruptions from the crowd grew frequent and feverish. Residents interjected with concerns about slope gradations, stormwater drainage, the loss of green space, the increase of traffic, and of course, parking. Given the floor, a number of nearby residents focused on the 24-hour noise pollution from the HVAC system that would be needed to chill the ice rink all year round. One woman even questioned whether a hockey rink would provide a gateway to college scholarships for the neighborhood’s youth.

Frances Jones, a community coordinator for the Boys and Girls club, reassured the crowd that all of their concerns would be taken into consideration.

The same could not be said about consideration for the site itself — at least not at Thursday’s meeting. Jones stood firm against varied protests to consider other sites for the club. “Let me just be real with you,” she told them. “Another location is not an option for us.”

“What’s definite is that the Boys and Girls Club owns the property and the proposal is to build on the property,” Jones said later, when pressed about consensus on the site. “Our concern is making sure that we build a facility that works for Boys and Girls Club and at the same time fits in with the community.”

There were some murmurs of appreciation as well. One neighborhood resident said that, while he takes issue with the plan in general, he was impressed with how far the concepts would come, and thanked the architects for their work.

The Boys and Girls Club’s proposal enjoys strong support of Councilwoman Cindy Bass, as well as Reverend Dr. Alyn Waller of Enon Tabernacle. An hour into Thursday’s pitched meeting, however, the club’s supporters learned of a political wall that could present some problems.

Kristen Haskins, a community liaison for State Rep. Rosita Youngblood, stood up to deliver a message from her office in opposition to the proposed club. Haskins said that, without real community consensus, Youngblood, who represents the area, would not sponsor the project and help it receive state grants through the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP).

“Representative Youngblood’s position is that she does not believe in demolition of a historic site to build a hockey rink, and there will be no RACP money for this project because there is no community support,” said Haskins, who is also a neighborhood resident.

Murmurs of RACP funding for the Boys and Girls club trace back to 2015 during the earliest iterations of the proposal, but the club has yet to receive the grant. CEO of Boys and Girls Club of Philadelphia Lisabeth Marziello has said that the Germantown project is on track to meet all of its funding goals, but it remains unclear what role RACP plays in that equation.

“[RACP grant funding] depends on community support, and unfortunately the Boys and Girls Club does not have community support,” Haskins told PlanPhilly after the meeting. “There are plenty of other great sites in Germantown that were proposed. We don’t understand why they are so hesitant to even entertain those possibilities.”

While both sides have white and black supporters, some of the proposal’s backers have heaved allegations of racial animus against the opponents. The conflict became so charged that, following the Historic Commission’s postponed decision in May, Paul Steinke, director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, suggested bringing in the city’s Commission on Human Relations as an independent arbiter, as it did during the hot-button racial tensions in the Gayborhood last fall.

Despite the core disagreements and snail-like progress, some said that Thursday’s meeting marked a modest improvement in tone. Allegations of racism, NIMBYism, and selfishness between sides were minimal, although several community members scrutinized Jones for holding the meeting at Enon, whose pastor is an ally of the Boys and Girls Club.

“It’s better than it was before — it was very contentious,” Haskins added. “But there has to be a little more compromise, especially from the Boys and Girls Club.”

*Correction: This sentence originally said plan opponents sought historic preservation of the entire proposal as a way to “stymie” the proposal. The historic designation sought is just for a part of the building, which supporters say would still allow for some expansion. 

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