At around 2:30 p.m. Thursday, Michael Johns boarded a Philadelphia Housing Authority shuttle bus in Germantown with a heavy heart.
Johns, PHA’s general manager of community development and design, traveled to Mt. Moriah Baptist Church to lead a tour aimed at showing residents the positive role his organization can play in a neighborhood.
Ongoing community discussions
For nearly two years, PHA officials (including Johns) have regularly met with neighbors at the Northwest Philadelphia church to discuss the organization’s plans to demolish a 16-story high-rise at 301 W. Queen Lane and replace it with 55 rental units.
The project, which has progressed slowly since a pre-Revolutionary War burial ground was discovered on-site, has been the source of some controversy.
Some residents, determined to preserve the Potter’s Field at all costs, don’t want to see any development, PHA or otherwise, at the site.
Thursday’s tour was organized to help provide more context for the development.
Johns said he was especially interested in providing that to the project’s detractors. None of those residents, however, signed up for the afternoon tour.
“I’m really saddened by that,” said Johns.
Showcasing past projects
Throughout the 90-minute ride, Johns drilled home a simple, but oft-debated message: PHA developments have improved the neighborhoods in which they’re located.
As the bus drove by Cambridge Plaza in North Philadelphia, Johns maintained that a nearby retail plaza rebounded and a community education and tennis facility is thriving as a result of the 124-unit development.
At Mantua Square in West Philadelphia, a site that closely mirrors designs for Queen Lane, he told residents that the development helped “keep [Morton McMichael Elementary] alive.”
The K-8 school, located directly across the street from Mantua Square on Fairmount Avenue, was recently removed from the School District of Philadelphia’s school closings list.
Students attending nearby Drexel University, added Johns, now live in the neighborhood, an unthinkable thought — in his estimation — just a decade ago.
The tour also stopped at Richard Allen Homes in North Philadelphia and Lucien Blackwell Homes in West Philadelphia.
Those who did show up
Johns’ mantra is one that Corliss Gray, a longtime Germantown resident who proposed the tour, wanted her neighbors — “her people” — to witness with their own eyes.
“I want them to see that public housing isn’t all bad,” she said.
Wanda Elam, Gray’s neighbor, said she believes the new site design for Queen Lane will help keep the neighborhood on the right track. PHA’s high-rises, she noted, have always had a stigma.
More broadly, Elam said public housing is a necessity, not a negative for a neighborhood.
“There are some honest, hardworking people where the bottom fell out of their life,” said Elam. “So, I feel that it’s good to have something that they can go to that’s decent, instead of going to a shelter or somebody’s basement.”
At around 4 p.m., the bus returned to Mt. Moriah. Before exiting, Johns took a moment to re-thank residents for attending. Then, he asked them a small favor.
“Please tell your neighbors,” he said. “We’ve done all that we can do.”