In North and West Philadelphia, two urban renewal plans move forward

Update, 4/22/11, 2:49 p.m.: Duplicate videos have been removed and updated and are now correct.

Community organizations in North and West Philadelphia came a step closer this week to turning blocks of mostly vacant or abandoned properties into new housing, a health and wellness center and a mixed-use development.

The Philadelphia Planning Commission Tuesday approved an amendment to the Model Cities Urban Renewal Plan, authorizing the redevelopment authority to acquire 54 properties on the block bounded by 21st and 22nd streets, Cecil B. Moore Avenue and Nicholas Street in North Philadelphia. Project H.O.M.E plans to build a health and wellness center in cooperation with Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. The commission also approved the acquisition of 2804 West Oakdale Street, which will become part of a Philadelphia Housing Authority residential development project.

And in West Philadelphia’s Parkside neighborhood, the commission approved expanding the Parkside-Lancaster Urban Renewal Plan, also authorizing the acquisition of 54 properties near 52nd Street and Parkside Avenue, where the Parkside Association of Philadelphia and Community Ventures, a non-profit developer of affordable housing, plan to build a mixed-use development with senior housing above and restaurant/retail space below, a small apartment building and a community garden on the east side of 52nd Street.

“We need to have this,” Parkside Association President Lucinda Hudson told commissioners.

Hudson said in an interview Thursday that the blocks in question are near another project her community fought for, Park West Town Center, a shopping center anchored by a Lowe’s home improvement store and a Shopright supermarket, the first grocery store in the neighborhood in decades. The mall is doing well, she said, but some people stay away because a nearby street has empty, trash-strewn lots and abandoned houses.

While the majority of the homes in question in both projects are vacant, not all of them are. That’s what concerned Tyrone Reed, President of the Committee for a Better North Philadelphia, about the project in his area. “Has anyone in the neighborhood been notified of this?” Reed asked.

Commissioner Patrick Eiding had questions about the relocation of residents as well.

“The redevelopment authority hasn’t developed those plans yet,” Community Planner David Fecteau, who presented the North Philadelphia project, told Eiding. “After the urban renewal amendment is approved, the Redevelopment Authority will go out and solicit appraisals on the properties, and then would make offers to property owners for fair market value,” he said. “If the owners accept, they get fair market value. If they do not accept, then that is when you start the condemnation process.”

Hudson, of the Parkside Association, said she was not worried about relocating residents. Her organization had to do a bit of that for the mall project, she said. “Last time, it went smooth as silk. There was not one problem,” she said. “The issue was that everbody’s house was in such bad shape, they were so happy to do this,” she said. Her organization received a letter of commendation from HUD for handling it so well,  she said.

North Philadelphia

Of the 54 properties that would be acquired in North Philadelphia, somewhere between three and nine have occupied homes on them, Fecteau said.  The most recent data suggests its closer to three, and some are rentals, he said.

Project H.O.M.E. Vice President of Operations Renee Murdock said that talks about the project have been ongoing in the community. “We’ve had a series of community meetings about the proposal for the wellness center,” she said. Residents at the senior center have been asked if they think a center is needed, and if so, what services should be offered, she said.

But until approval for the amendment to the urban renewal plan was given, she said, they could not talk about a specific address.  Murdock assured Reed that if approval was granted, “we will be back in the community.”

Reed said he wasn’t trying to stop the project. He just wanted to be sure the people who would be impacted are informed. “We are constantly being moved out of our neighborhoods, and we don’t know until the truck is there moving us out,” he said. “I just think we really need to make sure that folks know and have the opportunity to participate in whatever process you have.”

Murdock assured him that would happen.

“I believe the project I’m about to show you would create a nice little community,” Fecteau said as he began his presentation on the North Philadelphia project. The health and wellness center would be built in phases, he said. There is another center reasonably close by, but the services offered here would compliment those services. In the future, a new senior center may also be built, he said.

“The proposal involves both Project Home and Thomas Jefferson University Hospital,” said Commission Chairman and Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger. The idea is to bring some of the services for which people routinely go to the central hospital into the neighborhood, he said.

West Philadelphia

Coincidentally, there are nine occupied properties that are part of the Parkside project, said Planner Andrew Meloney.

The 54 total properties also include 15 vacant lots and 30 vacant structures.  “We’re looking at a possible mixed-use development with senior housing above and mixed-use restaurant and retail below,” he said. “There would be a community garden on the east side of 52nd Street.”

“What your seeing is a situation that frustrates a lot of neighborhoods, where vacant lots and abandoned properties often have no owners around,” Greenberger said. “To redevelop parts of the city, to do it even remotely efficiently, requires consolidation and assemblage of properties.”

Hudson hopes the project will not only make the neighborhood better for residents, but bring more visitors to her community.

She imagines Mann Music Center patrons coming to eat at restaurants that would be part of the mixed-use development planned for the 1700 block of 52nd Street.

There are now three homes on one side of the street where residents will need to be relocated, she said. The other side is “completely abandoned, with vacant land and a nuisance bar on the corner,” she said.
She hopes the mixed-use development will have doctors and dentists offices, too. And that the senior housing will have a community room.

The 5100 of Columbia is right across from the mall, she said. There are several homes that will be rehabbed, with the current occupants staying right where they are. There are two others where people will need to be relocated because they have to be stripped to the studs and rebuilt.  About half a dozen vacant properties will become parkland.

While the redevelopment authority has the power to buy up the properties, Parkside has the money, supplied from Neighborhood Transformation Initiative and state housing funds and other grants.

But work won’t begin anytime soon. An ordinance must be passed by city council, Hudson said, and that likely won’t be introduced until fall. It could take a year or more to locate the owners of abandoned properties, she said. And then there is the choosing of a general contractor and permitting process. “Construction will probably not happen for another 18 months to two years,” she said.

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