NewCourtland turns to community for input on EPPI site

The new owners of the sprawling site at 3232 Henry Avenue — the former Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute – don’t have a formal plan yet for its transition into a campus for senior care and affordable housing. 

But Gail Kass, president and CEO of NewCourtland Senior Services, said the nonprofit organization will formulate a plan with the surrounding communities over the next year, and she’s open to suggestions.

The groups representing neighbors have “a lot of energy and have expressed that energy to legislators. They’ve had worries about that site. We will get input from them and share what we’re doing. But there is a huge amount to do before we even get to that point,” Kass said in an interview with NewsWorks in late March.

Immediate concerns for NewCourtland, which purchased the site from the state for $2.1 million last fall, include $2 million in asbestos remediation in the mid-century buildings that cover 14 acres. “Just shutting down the buildings — turning off the heating, draining the pipes — costs a fortune,” Kass said.

“My dream would be that when we’re done, we’ll have housing for seniors, a new LIFE (Living Independently for Elders) Center, and some kind of programming, commercial or otherwise, that will link that parcel to the community,” she said. “I don’t know yet what that looks like: commercial shopping, movies, a gym, gardens — it’s all up for grabs.”

Back story

The EPPI property had been part of the state hospital system from 1949 to the 1970s, when operations were transferred to the Medical College of Pennsylvania, which continued to the use the main building as a psychiatric facility until 2006. The city took over the property from 2008 to 2013 for use as the Youth Study Center. The site then went up for bid for redevelopment, but failed to find a buyer until March 2014, when New Courtland stepped in.

The surrounding communities, meanwhile, had been working with local representatives on studies for the best use of the property. Their hope was that new tenants would bring new retail stores and other economic growth to the area.

State Rep. Pamela DeLissio has said there are models that can serve both NewCourtland and the neighboring communities, including Stadium Place in Baltimore, which provides long-term care, short-term rehabilitation, and mixed income housing for seniors, as well as retail stores, a computer lab and, other amenities. The old EPPI site, DeLissio has said, “warrants some master planning.”

The NewCourtland model

NewCourtland currently operates a LIFE Center serving about 200 seniors at 1940 W. Allegheny Ave., on a 5.5-acre site that had been an abandoned shirt factory. Senior housing is also being built at the Allegheny property.

But its flagship operation is NewCourtland’s Germantown Senior Community, 6950 Germantown Ave. in Mt. Airy, which was originally the Lutheran Home for Widows and Orphans and later the Germantown Home, a nursing facility.

In the mid-1990s, NewCourtland took over the Germantown Home, which was mired in debt, and “turned it around,” Kass said. The organization focused on “using our creative energy to establish housing and programming for seniors in order to eliminate or forestall their having to go into institutions. We got involved in the concept of housing for underserved seniors in our network and providing some support systems so people could stay in independent living.”

The 13.5-acre site in Mt. Airy provides a wide variety of services. The LIFE Center serves 60 NewCourtland residents and 70 seniors who live in surrounding neighborhoods. The center — a retrofitted building that had been offices and a boarding home — offers activities such as art projects and games; a wellness center and primary care clinic; a hairdresser; religious services; and grief counseling.

Germantown Home is now NewCourtland’s 180-bed nursing facility. Transitional, subsidized housing for those leaving nursing care and re-entering the community is offered in the 26 units of NewCourtland Square.

Resident Thomas Smallwood, whose checker champion trophy was earned in the LIFE Center, has a view from his apartment balcony of bustling Germantown Avenue. “I do my own cooking and cleaning,” Smallwood said, and despite living in a wheelchair, he takes frequent trips on SEPTA to do his own shopping along the avenue. If he needs any assistance, “the people here are very kind. They treat you like a human.”

NewCourtland’s 60 apartments for ages 62-plus offer the opportunity for independent living, the many activities in the LIFE Center, and day trips to see films, theater, and local tours.

There is also a section called The Cottages, designed for couples in which one spouse has Alzheimer’s Disease or another form of dementia. The set-up allows couples to remain together and includes a room for a live-in caretaker.

When NewCourtland began its services at the Mt. Airy site, Kass said, the surrounding neighbors were very welcoming. “The nursing home had been there forever, and they had accepted and embraced it. When we wanted to build the housing, the community asked for some changes in our plans. We heard them, and we made the buildings as acceptable as possible,” she said. Since the housing facilities opened, “we haven’t had one complaint [from the neighbors] that I’m aware of.”

Finding common ground

Kass is aware of the serious community concerns around the Henry Avenue property and the long history of the site.

“The whole thing has been studied 82 ways from Sunday,” Kass said, and she has seen many of the recommendations and wish lists that have emerged from those studies. “A lot was deleted because it wasn’t feasible. There is not a lot of money to support a shopping mall there. There are some inappropriate expectations in the community.”

But bringing retail stores and a commercial developer to the neighborhood is “entirely possible,” Kass said.

She also said NewCourtland intends to bring housing in the form of apartments and independent living to the site, and “maybe a LIFE Center.” There are no plans for a nursing home on Henry Avenue, she said.

“There are many other possibilities we haven’t explored. We will look for elements that will be embraced by the NewCourtland community and the community at large,” Kass said.

The organization is working with area legislators and has received “tremendous support from them for our investment” in East Falls, Kass said. “Only an organization like NewCourtland would take this on. No one else was going to do it.”

Pam Mammarella, NewCourtland’s vice president for marketing and government affairs, will be leading the community engagement process in the months ahead.

“We’ll be working through the legislators to communicate with the community groups initially, and we’ll be convening meetings with the groups together. Our door will be open,” Mammarella said.

PlanPhilly is now a project of WHYY/NewsWorks. It began in 2006 as an initiative of Penn Praxis inside the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. Though now part of WHYY, Plan Philly still works closely with Penn Praxis in covering planning, zoning and development news. Contact Alan Jaffe at ajaffe@planphilly.com.

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