Philly’s Equal Justice Center: More delays, less public space

A social impact development project planned for Philadelphia’s Chinatown is moving forward with a new design and timeline.

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)

Philadelphia’s long-awaited Equal Justice Center project hit another delay and will be redesigned to feature less public space than initially envisioned.

It is the second revision in the last six months for a project that has gone through several design iterations and groundbreaking dates since 2017, when the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA) selected Pennrose to execute redevelopment of the site. The land, owned by PRA, currently houses a surface parking lot and a headhouse for SEPTA’s Chinatown subway station.

The first phase of the redevelopment aims to co-locate a string of prominent Philadelphia-based legal aid societies –– like Community Legal Services and the Public Interest Law Center –– into a $70 million office tower near 8th and Vine streets.

Jessica Hilburn-Holmes, executive director of the Philadelphia Bar Foundation, which is leading the organizations behind the EJC tower, said the goal was to consolidate legal assistance services into a single venue.

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“Fourteen different legal nonprofits will be housed in one nonprofit center dedicated to improving coordination and collaboration among the city’s stellar legal aid agencies,” said Hilburn-Holmes.

The second phase of the ambitious project includes a $75 million building featuring affordable and market-rate housing on the same parcel. A hotel and retail space are expected to come to the Chinatown site in a final phase. PRA selected Pennrose to execute the redevelopment in response to a public call for proposals that were scored to weigh social impact. The company’s $7.2 million bid for the land beat out rival developer Parkway, although the final contract is still pending PRA board and City Council approval.

But Lindsey Samsi, an associate at Pennrose, said engineering and zoning constraints had forced a reconfiguration of the site in order to accommodate all 145 surface parking spaces that parking lot operator E-Z Park had included in the group’s original redevelopment proposal.

“E-Z Park had proposed a certain number of parking spaces,” she said. “But when we got into the zoning and planning process, it limited the footprint for the parking.”

Initially, the partners considered shedding parking spots. But Councilperson Mark Squilla, whose district includes the project site, said he met with project partners to underscore parking concerns he’d heard from Chinatown community members.

“They want to make sure there’s parking for Chinatown businesses. There’s a banquet hall facility right there on Ninth Street,” Squilla said. “They wanted to make sure the parking on site isn’t all just for the EJC or the hotel.”

The partners eventually agreed to reduce a planned 36,000 square-foot public plaza and park by about 10,000 square feet in order to maintain private parking spaces. The planned residential structure will feature another 40 garage spaces for residents.

Social impact and ‘a lot of moving parts’

Squilla said he was pleased with the outcome.

“There’s a lot of moving parts. Usually, it’s just one developer, but this project has three separate people involved with three different ideas about what benefits them the most,” the councilperson said. “And we have to balance that with what the community wants.”

Separately, the project’s flagship legal office space has hit some financial hurdles, delaying groundbreaking on the first phase of the project.

The Bar Foundation announced in June that a proposed 10- to 12-story, 175,000-square-foot EJC tower would be reduced in size. Plans now call for a 140,000 square feet of office space in a nine-story tower. While the EJC portion will benefit from a $4.5 million state Redevelopment Capital Assistance Program grant and federal tax credits, only 13 out of 20 nonprofits that initially signed on to the project have so far committed to office space.

Last week, Hilburn-Holmes acknowledged that fundraising for the project has gone slower than anticipated and caused the EJC’s timetable to be bumped from 2019 and into 2020. A building permit for the project has been renewed for an additional six months to allow for a later-than-expected start date.

“We extended the timeline, but everything is on track and moving forward,” she said. “It’s just on track for next summer instead of this December.”

Hilburn-Holmes emphasized that the legal aid component of the project was still on track for the 2022 completion date.

Samsi said the second phase, a mixed-income 177-unit residential tower, had also hit a slight snag. The project was rejected for an initial application for low-income housing tax credits designed to support 51 affordable senior housing units. But she said such rejections were not uncommon and that the company intends to reapply for this affordable housing program within the coming weeks.

The hotel and retail complex, the final phase of the project, was still in a “design phase” and does not currently have a projected timeline for construction.

Jamila Davis, a spokesperson for the PRA, said the agency still expects the development project to advance largely as planned.

“We have been communicating closely with the development team and feel confident that the project is moving forward. We have also been communicating with Chinatown stakeholders to ensure that community concerns are heard,” Davis said.

Editor’s Note: This article was corrected on Dec. 4, 2019, to say that Councilmember Squilla heard concerns about parking for Chinatown businesses from community leaders. 

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