Plan calls for apartments/office/retail at former Kensington mill, and new efforts to shut down nearby drug market

A former Kensington textile mill is set to become a mixed-use residential, office and commercial development called Orinoka Mills Civic House. It is part of the New Kensington Community Development Corporation’s North of Lehigh Neighborhood Revitalization Plan, accepted Tuesday by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission.

The revamped building would include 50, low-to-moderate income, one- and two-bedroom apartments, office space for the NKCDC and  ground floor retail. Future plans include new uses for land surrounding the building and new homes built in empty spaces between existing ones in the neighborhood. The projected cost of Orinoka Mills Civic House: $16 million.  (Watch Eyes on The Street for an upcoming, detailed story about the adaptive reuse of the former mill.)

 “The goal is to stabilize the factory first, and then use strategic infill,” said city planner David Fecteau, who introduced the North of Lehigh Plan to commissioners. “It would stabilize this area, and then hopefully development would branch out from there.”

The hope is that the new mill will spur future development in part of the North of Lehigh Plan’s focus area, a section of the city with good transit access and a high rate of home ownership, but also some extremely difficult problems, said Fecteau and NKCDC Community Engagement Director Andrew Goodman. The plan’s boundaries: Clearfield and Lehigh, Kensington and Aramingo. 

This includes one of Philadelphia’s most infamous drug markets, the corner of Kensington and Somerset, not far from the mill. And so the plan doesn’t call only for new housing and green space, but an increased police presence, and on-going partnership with Conrail.

Why Conrail?

When police try to nab people selling and buying drugs, they often escape upward, onto the Lehigh Viaduct, Fecteau said. “It’s a handy place for many of the drug dealers and addicts to run to when the police come,” he said. Fencing off access would at least keep the drugs ground level, where laws can be enforced he said. Plus, it would make the area safer for trains.

The area grew around three Market-Frankford El stops, and comes with the old-school transit accessibility that is all the rage with new development. It also boasts a 90 percent home ownership rate, Fecteau said, and most of the housing stock is in fairly good shape. Part of the plan – written by Interface Studios with the input of many community residents, including the Somerset Neighbors for Better Living civic organization, and other stakeholders – includes getting information about grants and other tools that qualifying homeowners can use to upkeep and stay in their homes. The plan calls for dangerous properties to be demolished, and for better enforcement of zoning violations.

The median household income is $26,105, more than $10,000 less than the city-wide average. One-in-four properties are vacant, and 22 percent of those are owned by the city. (So is Orinoka Mills, but the in-the-works transfer to NKCDC will be complete any day now, Goodman said.)

Improving the local economy is another key goal of the plan. There’s a pretty good base of businesses to build from, Fecteau noted, but there’s not a lot of variety. About 15 percent of the commercial operations are auto repair shops. And 41 percent of active industrial uses are scrap yards. At a meeting about the developing plan, someone noted that the neighborhood is likely the best place in the city to get your car repaired, but there’s not much to do while you wait.

Of the 100 square acres included in the plan, about 10 are used for scrap yards, Goodman said. This is an environmental justice issue, not only because the scrap yards often become dumping grounds for garbage, but because in some cases, grinding of metal for recycling releases particulates into the air. They also play “an official or unofficial role” in the drug economy, he said.

Planning Commission Chairman and Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Alan Greenberger noted that scrap yards are essential city uses that must go somewhere, but they must be well-managed. He suggested NKCDC look for one “willing to partner with you to create a different physical presentation to the street,” – one that is clean and neat and won’t encourage illegal dumping.

Commissioner Nilda Ruiz, who is president and chief executive officer of community development organization Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha, suggested consulting Richard S. Burns & Company on Rising Sun Avenue. “They keep it looking nice, and they keep the dust down,” she said.

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