Jan. 23. 2010
By Thomas J. Walsh
Even in a vibrant economy, with surging real estate values and a healthy appetite for a big new shopping center in a part of the city that could really use one, the redevelopment of the 35-acre Logan Triangle in lower North Philadelphia would be a hard sell.
As things are though, with ownership issues and City Planning Commission mandates combined with Logan’s troubled history and its very troublesome geography, the notion of rebuilding on the blighted site now seems remote at best.
That was the conclusion of a team from the Philadelphia chapter of the Urban Land Institute, which issued a report on the area through its Technical Assistance Program (TAP) in the fall. Over the course of several months in 2009, the ULI used the TAP program for the first time in Philadelphia at the request of Terry Gillen, executive director of the city’s Redevelopment Authority and a senior aide to Mayor Michael Nutter.
Gillen, with local members of the ULI that worked on the project, met Wednesday afternoon at the offices of Langan Engineers & Environmental Services to review the report and lessons learned. A year ago, Gillen – acting on a request by 9th District City Councilwoman Marian Tasco – was trying to work up a renewed RFP (request for proposals) for the Logan site when she approached the ULI. Part of the project involved evaluation of potential private developer responses.
Logan is the site of the infamous “sinking homes,” most of them built in the 1920s on ash and unstable landfill atop old creek beds. By the 1950s, nearly 1,000 houses were cracked and broken and found to be sitting on environmentally dangerous soil. Most of the homes were razed over a 20-plus year period beginning in the early 1980s. The owners and occupants of the homes were re-located by the city.
Gillen was part of a small panel that included Chris Hager, a senior associate and civil engineer at Langan, and Craig Schelter, the TAP vice chair for ULI Philadelphia.
“What sort of astonished me when I got to the Redevelopment Authority was the lack of planning that had gone on at either the RDA or the Planning Commission,” Gillen said. “I realized we had this problematic site that had been the subject of several RFPs. In the past, the councilwoman (Tasco) had asked me and the RDA to do an RFP to ask retailers to come, and to say what they might build on the site.
“There was apparently a long set of meetings (in 2006 and ’07) and it didn’t work out. It’s hard for me to understand now why it didn’t work out, but maybe that the community wanted a lot of things, or felt they were promised a lot, [or] the developer got in over their head.”
Regardless of previous missed opportunities, there was another RFP which resulted in two proposals, from the Goldenberg Group and Bart Blatstein’s Tower Investments. Both were submitted in the summer of 2007, and both were primarily retail, with about 350,000 square feet of leasable area. Those plans were deemed incomplete and were rejected, perhaps due to the “unclear vision” of those preceding RFPs, the ULI suggests.
“And then of course, the market dropped and the bottom fell out of the real estate market,” Gillen said.
By late 2008, the market had changed so dramatically that no project, even one that might have been approved, would likely have survived the credit crunch, she said. At that point, Gillen and her staff took another hard look, and it was determined that the environmental conditions were perhaps worse than imagined.
“We started to think, maybe part of the problem with the RFP process was that no one had done a really good site analysis, and that in order to move this project forward, we really needed to have someone look at it with a really hard-nosed view,” Gillen said. “And that’s when I went back to the ULI.”
RDA staffer Rachel Brooks served as Gillin’s point person on the Logan initiative with the ULI team. The effort was part of the city’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program, meant to focus on the rehabilitation of foreclosed properties, weatherization and energy efficiency programs, and opportunities for arts organizations and alternative energy entrepreneurs.
After conducting a two-day site tour in June of last year, followed by more than 20 interviews with community stakeholders, the TAP panel wrote in a letter to Gillen that it had “concluded that market conditions just did not support going forward with an RFP at this time.”
It’s certainly not the outcome Tasco was looking for. But for dealing directly with decades of frustration on the part of her constituents, “Councilwoman Tasco deserves a lot of credit for engaging in the conversation,” Gillen said. “She has had to re-adjust a lot of people’s expectations for this site. It’s an honest dialogue, and there are many Council people who would not have allowed us” to do this.
Politically speaking, Schelter added later that the scope of redevelopment is so large that it would require a consistent vision over the course of several mayoral administrations.
Philly’s Bermuda Triangle
Problems plaguing the Logan Triangle neighborhood are legion, and deciding where to begin addressing them all is among them.
The immense environmental concerns alone (the catalyst for the structural damage to the homes and the swift decline of the neighborhood) are more than daunting. Estimated site improvements, including the removal of the first eight feet of ash-laden soil and new ground in-fill to take its place, would cost at least $50 million. There are significant safety and blight issues as well.
But perhaps more to the point, the ULI report points out, “there is no one party or agency responsible for the active management of the Logan Triangle,” let alone any kind of sustained or decent marketing effort aimed at investors outside the Philadelphia area.
Also, the RDA does not have complete ownership of the property, comprised of four contiguous parcels of mostly empty land (about 17 square blocks) bounded by Roosevelt Boulevard and 7th, 11th and Loudon streets. The Philadelphia Housing Authority and a few private owners control several strips, the ULI says, and some plots have other lien issues.
Then there is the bottom line. There is simply no market for residential redevelopment there, the report concludes. And though the site could support some 100,000 square feet of retail, “new construction would only pirate from other retail locations” nearby.
“Even with the benefit of a public subsidy,” the ULI finds that all of these major obstacles would be prohibitive to any kind of return on investment by a developer. Further, “even if the city had the funding to remediate the problem, it would never be able to sell the site for a sufficiently high price to ever see a modest economic return.”
Red tape, green trees
So what to do with such a large neighborhood so centrally located in the city?
Foremost, the ULI suggests, is that the RDA acquire ownership and clear title to the entire triangle: “Until the RDA has the entire site under its control, any marketing, feasibility studies, or discussions will be susceptible to uncertainty.” In the meantime, it recommends the RDA “look for an immediate, but interim, low density use.”
Enter the city’s new Greenworks plan from the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, the ULI authors write. Why not use the empty Logan space as a tree nursery, for seven to 10 years, since part of the Greenworks plan calls for the planting of 300,000 trees “by 2017-2020?”
Other green suggestions: Allocate small portions of the site for community gardens and a neighborhood farmer’s market or co-op. Involve educators and students, from the School District to the university level. Consult with proven urban farming specialists, such as Greensgrow, private farmers and Urban Outfitters’ Terrain at Styer’s. Allow the Philadelphia Water Department to develop underground storm water runoff systems.
For any of these things to go forward, though, the City Planning Commission is going to have to relax what are called “purposely specific” zoning guidelines for Logan in terms of preservation of streets and overall use. The ULI report determined (rather politely, Schelter joked at the Wednesday meeting), that, “If the overarching goal of a new RFP is to encourage creative development, these guidelines will certainly limit responses and require a much stronger retail and residential demand.”
Translation: It’s over for now. Move on.
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ON THE WEB:
www.phillytrolley.com/IMAGES/10TH_ST.JPG (Photo taken in September 1999, looking south on 10th Street, from Wyoming Avenue, towards Roosevelt Boulevard)