West Philadelphia’s Mantua neighborhood is inching closer to getting a long-awaited grocery store, as part of a development that will also bring a radio station and hundreds of homes to a series of vacant city-owned lots.
The “Village Square on Haverford” envisions a two-phase development that will bring 166 units of housing to 36th Street and Haverford Avenue, along with 31,145 square feet of commercial space anchored by a “full-service” Met Fresh Supermarket.
Along with the supermarket, plans include a coffee shop operated by Little Giant Creative co-founder Tayyib Smith, and a new headquarters for WURD Radio, Pennsylvania’s only black-owned talk radio station. Eighty of the housing units are flagged as “workforce housing” with sale prices capped at $230,000 and 32 apartments will feature affordable rent.
The $43 million development is a joint project of Lomax Real Estate Partners, GoldOller Ventures, Parkway Corporation’s Joseph and Roberty Zuritsky, and the Mount Vernon Manor Community Development Corporation.
Charles Lomax, a partner at Lomax Real Estate, said the development would eliminate blighted land and bring improved food access and affordable housing to a neighborhood in short supply of both.
“Our top priority is that these affordable units go to folks in the community. There’s a tremendous opportunity to create some homeownership in an appreciating market. To have an asset that can build wealth for their family,” Lomax said. “And we wanted a store that has everything people need to eat healthy, which has been missing from the community for years and years.”
Lomax is also a partner with the Lomax Companies, which owns WURD radio. The companies’ roots run deep in Philadelphia, dating back to Lomax’s father, Walter P. Lomax, Jr., MD, a doctor who treated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr in his community medical center in South Philadelphia.
In addition to his medical practice, Lomax was a philanthropist and successful entrepreneur, as he expanded his practice to six sites and established businesses that provided health care to underserved communities. He also founded WURD in 2003.
“Because that was really at his core, his belief that economic empowerment was really, in a capitalistic society, the pathway to liberation and full equality,” said Sara Lomax-Reese, president and CEO of WURD and Walter P. Lomax Jr’s daughter, at a 2018 Founder’s Day event celebrating her father’s legacy
The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority approved a $1 million sale of the Mantua land to Lomax and his partners at its November board meeting. Lomax said the sale will head to City Council for final approval with a projected groundbreaking in the second quarter of 2020.
The large tract of land at the heart of Mantua has been eyed for redevelopment for years. Earlier plans for a sprawling big box store went down in flames, after local artist James Dupree fought back against efforts to seize his studio through eminent domain in order to clear the way for that development.
Lomax entered the picture with a project that spared Dupree’s property by proposing a much denser development, which now includes a five-story apartment complex, 10 quadruplex rowhouses and a second phase with additional apartments and rowhouses. Although earlier iterations that featured over 200 apartments were scaled back in the face of community opposition, the final project won praise from Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron for its urbanist bona fides and affordable housing component.
These units will benefit from about $9.25 million in block grant funding, state economic development grants, low-income housing tax credits, and other subsidies. The site also benefits from tax breaks through its federal Opportunity Zone designation.
Lomax said incentives were critical to luring a grocery tenant to the area.
“With one or two percent profits, it’s very difficult to find an operator to go into a neighborhood that doesn’t have the traffic to support such a store,” the developer said. “This is the poster child of what KOZ is supposed to do.”
A spokesperson for the PRA also described the project as a win-win for the community.
“The project was selected from a competitive request for proposals that included social impact as a scoring factor, seeking projects that have strong community partnerships and outcomes,” wrote spokesperson Jamila Davis, in an email. “The project…will activate nearly two blocks of vacant, publicly-owned land in a way that is positive for the community.”
For those helming the project, this is a happy ending to a long and protracted saga that could have ended with the displacement of a prominent local artist. Lomax said he hoped Dupree’s studio would instead become “an asset” for the upcoming development.
However, Dupree described his personal experiences in a darker light. Dupree said he’d moved to Mantua in the 1970s with hopes of revitalizing the area through a grassroots artistic movement, but described himself as a victim of a fundamentally inhumane land assembly and development process.
“I just got caught up in it,” Dupree said, reached by phone on an artistic retreat in Mexico. “If I knew all this was going to happen, I never would have bought that property.”
He said Lomax had asked him to stay, but the artist says he’s considering leaving the neighborhood altogether and starting a museum and studio elsewhere due to concerns that the area will become unaffordable.
Dupree lamented what he views as the impending and inevitable gentrification of Mantua and said he was ambivalent about the new development that will rise around his studio.
“I really don’t care…Nobody is talking about what amount of money they’re going to make,” he said, of the new development.