Philadelphia Equal Justice Center office development succumbs to COVID-19

Rendering of the Equal Justice Center near 8th and Vine streets. (Courtesy of Pennrose)

Rendering of the Equal Justice Center near 8th and Vine streets. (Courtesy of Pennrose)

A Philadelphia nonprofit has scrapped plans for a $70 million office tower adjacent to the Chinatown subway station that would have consolidated the city’s legal aid groups in one place, citing economic conditions created by the coronavirus pandemic.

A letter circulated among various stakeholders last month indicated that the Philadelphia Bar Foundation, which helped organize and lead fundraising efforts for the development, “would not be moving forward with groundbreaking and construction of a new building.” The letter cites current “economic conditions” and the “development of new work from home solutions.”

The foundation had struggled to keep tenants on board and meet certain fundraising goals last year. Executive Director Jessica Hilburn-Holmes confirmed details of the August letter on Tuesday morning but left the door open for other efforts to realize the broader strategic goal of improving access to various legal aid services provided by 14 different local nonprofits.

“Many of the tenants could no longer commit because of the pandemic,” she said. “But we’re moving forward with various aspects of the project that do not involve colocation.”

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In a subsequent statement released Tuesday, Hillburn-Holmes said the organization would conduct a feasibility study to explore better information sharing among legal groups, deploying “legal navigators” to help connect residents with aid services and piloting an incubator project to train and employ more aid lawyers.

The EJC is one component of a larger project led by development company Pennrose that seeks to redevelop a large parking lot at 8th and Vine streets that is currently owned by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. The site, bounded by Race Street and the Vine Street Expressway, between Eighth and Ninth streets, is the single largest city-owned lot in Center City. The PRA selected the Pennrose proposal via a competitive process that took into account social impact. The Equal Justice Center helped the developer make a case for their project, which is slated to feature affordable and market-rate housing, a hotel, retail space, and 145 parking spaces. The 3.2-acre project is anticipated to roll out in phases.

Richard K. Barnhart, Pennrose CEO and chairman, said Tuesday that the company “is committed to fulfilling our obligation to the 8th and Race Streets site and surrounding community.”

“We look forward to working with the City of Philadelphia to develop an updated plan,” Barnhart said.

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