Germantown neighbors rally against Kelly Playground demolition

About 40 residents attended a Northwest Neighbors meeting at Canaan Baptist Church in Germantown to discuss a new twist in the Queen Lane Apartments demolition plan.

The Philadelphia Housing Authority, which owns the apartment complex and adjacent Kelly Playground, plans to build 55 low-income apartments along the perimeter of the square. To do so, however, residents said PHA will have to demolish the existing playground.

They rallied against the fact that a city ordinance, which was sponsored by Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller and passed in April 2010, conveyed the $176,000 land on which the playground sits to PHA for $1.

“I live three blocks away and we need to have a safe place for our children to play,” said Northwest Neighbors community liaison Lisa Hopkins, who has lived near Queen Lane apartments for years.

Hopkins noted that the playground — also known as the Wissahickon Playground — lacks basketball nets, the area is full of trash and there is no green space for youth within the fenced-in concrete park.

“We deserve better,” she said.

Elected officials show their support

State Rep. Rosita Youngblood and incoming Eighth District Councilwoman Cindy Bass attended the meeting to offer support and answer questions.

“We can have the communities we want, but we have to fight for them,” said Bass in a familiar refrain. She added that she doesn’t believe in badmouthing outgoing officials (read: Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller) but said she has heard of similar problems across the district and plans address them once she’s in office.

Youngblood said she hopes the community can meet with housing-authority officials to “bring them to reality” about mismanagement under previous executive director Carl Greene.

“I don’t have time to play games,” Youngblood said, noting that PHA submits an annual budget to the state house for review. “I can be heavy with that pen.”

In fact, Youngblood said the agency will apply for tax-exempt financing to help finance the project by Thursday. Those credits require that only rentals can be built.

Residents want more homeowners, not renters

While both Bass and Youngblood told the crowd that tax credits are “like gold” to developers, residents would rather they sought grant funding for homeownership programs.

Hopkins said PHA was invited to attend the meeting, but no one from the agency did so. Officials there did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

“We want at least half of those houses to be for sale,” said group member Marcus Heppinstall, adding that homeowners are more likely to take responsibility for their block.

Others say crime will skyrocket if the playground is demolished.

“If we don’t take care of this problem, don’t be surprised at the future crime rate,” said Thomas Morgan, the Democratic committeeperson for the 10th Ward 11th division. “Our future depends on our children. We never had a baseball or football field in our neighborhood.”

Halfway through the meeting, Department of Parks and Recreation representative Eileen Sheridan stepped to the front of the room. She said she only took over as the district manager in which Kelly playground is located, less than a month ago.

“I didn’t know anything about that,” she said of the land transfer, but promised she would report back to her supervisors with the community’s concerns.

A long-standing source of tension

Karletha Brooks has lived in the neighborhood, and near the high-rise tower, for 45 years. The memories are not always good ones. Her uncle was shot in the lobby years ago and, more recently, a security guard’s life was spared when a bulletproof vest and booth walls spared him from death via assault rifle in 2008.

She said she’s heard from older generations that the community protested when it was being built in the 1950s. The existing playground — a concrete basketball court and jungle gym – has always been in sorry shape, but at least the children had somewhere to play, she added. Otherwise, the closest recreation center is Happy Hollow, about six blocks away.

“I feel like what’s going on is wrong,” Brooks said. “We have no input.”

Northwest Neighbors has started a petition to stop the playground demolition and are researching ways to fund the recreation center and sport fields they’d prefer. Organizers said they plan on holding another meeting within a week and will again invite PHA to attend.

UPDATE: After this story was initially posted, PHA spokeswoman Nichole Tillman called with a comment:

“As we do whenever we redevelop a community, PHA held three community meetings as well as numerous meetings with PHA residents to get feedback on our plan. We took the community’s concerns – and in particular their request for a replacement playground – to heart and will be including a large green space in the center of the new site’s courtyard.

“The green space will feature ‘play’ equipment. In addition, we are building a community room. This will also be made available to both PHA residents and residents of the wider community.

“The new development will offer only rental homes, but PHA is auctioning vacant properties in the area so that private owners can develop properties as homes for either rent or sale.”

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