Search for remains begins ahead of schedule at Germantown Potter’s Field site [Updated]

Several newly dug holes peppered the property around the Queen Lane Apartments this week as archaeologists began examining several locations in the search for remains from an 18th-century Potter’s Field on the site.

Neighbors were surprised to see workers digging at the site starting Monday, and not only because of the President’s Day holiday.

Community reaction

At the most recent meeting of project officials, neighbors and activists, estimates were that “ground truthing” likely wouldn’t begin until April.

Some neighborhood activists, already publicly skeptical of the way the Philadelphia Housing Authority has pursued its plan to replace the aging 16-story building with a new development, are upset.

Lisa Hopkins, of Northwest Neighbors of Germantown, said she was “appalled but not surprised” that digging started with no notice to the community.

The process

At the site Thursday, Mary Alfson Tinsman, cultural resources manager for consultant JMT Inc., which is leading the archaeological review, said digging began on the spots near Priscilla Street because contracts were ready and the mild winter has held.

Machines removed asphalt and concrete, and workers will now hand-dig and screen the soil through mesh, looking for any remains.

“If the weather holds, it supposed to take about three weeks,” she said.

It’s possible that results of the ground screening could be available next month, she said.

PHA work

There are other newer holes on the property as well, dug by the Philadelphia Housing Authority as part of preliminary work for potential future building, Tinsman said.

Those borings are on the property’s perimeter, near Pulaski and Penn streets, where no anomalies were detected, and must go down to “culturally sterile subsoil,” or ground that had not been previously disturbed, she said.

Dirt from those perimeter holes will also be screened, although the anomalies — which could indicate remains from humans — were only found at the three spots they’ve already identified, Tinsman said.

Phase one

The archaeology is part of the first phase of an ongoing historic review of the area that must be completed before PHA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development can move forward with plans to bring public housing back to 301 W. Queen Lane.

PHA has zoning approval already for a new development that would see the 16-story apartment tower demolished and replaced with a low-rise neighborhood of 55 units. PHA led neighbors and interested parties on a bus tour Thursday of similar sites.

But any future development depends on the result of the historic review, required when federal money is used on sites with historic significance.

While neighbors and community activists want the tower to go, some also say they can’t be sure exactly where the Potter’s Field boundaries were, or remains came to rest when PHA built the apartments.

Given that, Hopkins said digging holes as preliminary work for future development was “putting the cart before the horse.”

UPDATE: HUD Division Director Monica Hawkins emailed an “On-site Ground Truthing Update” to interested parties at 7 p.m. Thursday. It stated:

“According to the Philadelphia Housing Authority, the ground truthing work at the Queen Lane site began on Monday, February 11, 2013.

“The Archeological team, Cultural Heritage Research Services (CHRS) along with Enviroscan (Soil Scientists) have begun marking out the various areas of the site (where anomalies were identified).

“On Monday, February 18, 2013, the Dale Corporation (General Contractor) began removing the site paving to prepare for hand excavation (s).

“The work will take 3-4 weeks depending on weather conditions. A final report will be issued upon completion of the ground truthing work.

“The Consulting Parties were made aware of this impending work at the January 24, 2013 Section 106 meeting. PHA and its consultants had initially believed the ground truthing work would not begin before March due to the cold weather and its impact on the soil, but based on the milder weather conditions, the work was able to get started.

“We realize that open communication is very important to this process so we have reached out to the Philadelphia Housing Authority to identify ways to prevent future communication gaps from occurring.

“Throughout this process we will keep you updated on the progress of the ground truthing work. If you have any questions about the site work during the ground truthing exercise, please contact Michael Johns at (215) 678-2453.”

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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