PHA deadline for Falls Ridge proposals looms for developers

 The PHA says it is amenable to various proposals for Falls Ridge including retail, recreational, commercial or mixed use. (Matthew Grady/for NewsWorks)

The PHA says it is amenable to various proposals for Falls Ridge including retail, recreational, commercial or mixed use. (Matthew Grady/for NewsWorks)

A deadline looms for proposals on a vacant parcel of land in East Falls.

The Philadelphia Housing Authority is seeking plans for the redevelopment of land at the north end of the Falls Ridge development at the intersection of Merrick Road and Ridge Avenue.

Currently, the PHA says it is amenable to various proposals on the 2.2 acre plot of land, including retail, recreational, commercial or mixed use.

The agency intends to retain ownership of the approximately 95,000 square-foot parcel and expects to enter into a long-term ground lease with the successful developer, according to the PHA.

Recent meeting

At a pre-bid meeting held Wednesday morning at the PHA’s location in South Philadelphia, a handful of developers were told that the agency is looking for the “highest and best use” of the site, which will have several hundred feet of frontage along Ridge Avenue and is currently zoned for multi-family residential usage.

They were also told that the PHA is looking for more than a “nominal” fee for use of the site, although exact numbers were not disclosed or discussed.

Developers have until March 31 to submit their proposals.

Vacancies don’t reflect ‘market conditions’

The plot of land borders existing development at Falls Ridge, currently managed by Pennrose Properties under a ground lease with the PHA similar to the one currently being offered.

The entire site was once home to two high-rise towers and more than 200 low-rise homes of the Schuylkill Falls housing project, both of which were razed in the late 1990s.

Gina Snyder, executive director of the East Falls Development Corporation, said that she is pleased that additional development could come to the far end of the Ridge Avenue commercial corridor.

While a large undertaking by Onion Flats promises to enliven that stretch of the road, two idle properties – a former restaurant and the shuttered Delaware Valley High School – give the area a somewhat desolate quality.

Acknowledging existing vacancies in the commercial space that fronts the existing Falls Ridge development, Snyder said that the property, despite its high visibility, “does not reflect the real market conditions in East Falls.”

Lingering challenges

According to Snyder, the commercial spaces within the building are not outfitted for easy occupancy. A potential tenant would need to install plumbing, HVAC systems and other necessities.

For a long-term tenant like East River Bank, this was not a disincentive, but Snyder indicated that the lack of these features has discouraged others.

While the site has much going for it – a prominent, convenient location with ample parking front and back – Snyder said that the state of the building, not the property’s viability, has prevented existing development at Falls Ridge from reaching its full potential.

“One could get the impression that no one wants to occupy the space,” she said, “but that would not be an accurate impression.”

Reaching out to community

At Wednesday’s meeting, PHA staffers encouraged developers to contact registered community organizations in East Falls, in the interest of eliminating any adversarial concerns early in the process.

Barnaby Wittels, president of the East Falls Community Council, said that the EFCC currently has no position on development at the site, as no proposals have been tendered for their review.

“We will keep a close eye on the project,” said Wittels, “especially given the checkered history of the PHA in East Falls.”

Once submitted, a PHA evaluation committee will review the proposals, and a “short list” of developers will likely be invited to pitch their ideas to the agency.

No timelines on development were discussed, but Snyder estimated that the process would last one to two years.

The likely winner will be the developer who best balances the interests of the PHA and the community at large.

“It could be anything from a playground to an airport landing strip,” said PHA staffer Clarence Mosely. “It’s whatever you conceive [the best usage] to be based on your due diligence and market analysis.”

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