PHA head can’t wait ‘to tear down’ Queen Lane Apartments high-rise

 The soon-to-be-demolished Queen Lane Apartments, as seen reflected in a window of Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, which sits across Pulaski Avenue from the site. (Bas Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

The soon-to-be-demolished Queen Lane Apartments, as seen reflected in a window of Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, which sits across Pulaski Avenue from the site. (Bas Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

The Philadelphia Housing Authority is finally preparing to demolish Queen Lane Apartments, a 16-story high-rise building in Germantown with a checkered past.

For this, agency officials and nearby residents couldn’t be happier.

“It came as a relief for us,” said PHA Executive Director Kelvin Jeremiah during an interview with NewsWorks on Monday. “I’m looking [forward] to pressing the button to tear down that site.”

A long, winding backstory

PHA closed the hulking tower nearly three years ago to make way for a new 55-unit, low-density development.

The building was originally scheduled to come down in Aug. 2012, but the discovery of a “Potter’s Field” beneath the site changed everything and nearly led to the agency scrapping the $22 million project.

Neighbors wanted to preserve and honor the colonial-era burial ground created for “all strangers, Negroes, and Mulattoes [who] die in any part of Germantown forever.”

PHA ultimately agreed not to build on top of the cemetery, a decision that added a complex layer to a historical-review process that had to be completed before HUD could accept an application for demolition approval.

The big dig

PHA paid for a pair of archaeological surveys to determine the boundaries of the “Potter’s Field.”

The agency also executed a “programmatic agreement” with HUD, neighbors and other stakeholders.

The legal document, finalized Feb. 20, spells out what actions will be taken going forward if any historic resources are found either during additional archaeological digs, demolition or construction.

To date, no human remains have been discovered at the site, and nothing has indicated that the burial ground extends beyond the roughly two-acre footprints found on a pair of historic site maps.

Almost didn’t happen

Jeremiah said at one point in the process, he came “incredibly close” to simply gutting and renovating the existing tower instead of moving forward with the new development.

“For three years, we had an asset that was non-performing,” said Jeremiah. “We weren’t receiving income in terms of rent.”

With the agency grappling with a drop in federal housing dollars, a cheaper and possibly faster alternative started to look more and more appealing.

Ultimately though, Jeremiah said the community’s desire to see the tower go and PHA’s desire to ride the city of similar structures won out.

Queen Lane will be the 19th high-rise PHA has demolished.

Neighborhood reaction

Kristin Haskins-Simms, a nearby resident who helped fight to preserve the “Potter’s Field,” is glad Jeremiah chose to start fresh.

She’s “praying” that the new development represents that start of a more positive chapter for Queen Lane Apartments and the still-struggling blocks that surround it.

“It cast a shadow … physically, mentally and emotionally,” said Haskins. “For that to come down, I think that’ll be a huge weight lifted off the community.

The nearly 60-year-old building had a long history of crime. Drug-use and dealing was commonplace. There had been shootings inside.

Fellow resident Corliss Gray has lived directly across the street from the high-rise for nearly all of the building’s existence.

She said she can’t wait to hear construction vehicles rumble and beep around the site. The noise will sound like sweet music.

“The whole neighborhood is going to feel it,” said Gray. “They don’t realize it, but once that new complex gets built … people will be pleased.”

Gray, a longtime PHA resident, is particularly excited about the agency’s waiting list shrinking a bit. It currently has more than 100,000 names.

“We need that 55 units,” she said. “We need every little house we can get.”

What now?

Demolition is scheduled for October.

Construction is expected to last a year.

The Philadelphia Housing Authority must first get a demolition-approval letter from HUD, permits from the city and prepare the 16-story high-rise for implosion before it can come down.

For now, a plaque or historic marker will designate the “Potter’s Field” portion of the site.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal