Public meeting on Germantown Boys and Girls Club aimed for consensus but tensions remain

Reverend Dr. Alyn Waller* made it clear from the onset where his allegiances stood. At hand was a community discussion about a long-in-the-making plan to tear down the aged Germantown Boys and Girls Club and raise a brand-new, high-capacity edifice in its place. “We are unapologetically youth-oriented,” Waller said, standing before the pews of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Germantown, where he serves as senior pastor. In attendance were a number of politicians, including City Councilwoman Cindy Bass and State Senator Sharif Street, along with a phalanx representing the Boys and Girls Club, including Lisabeth Marziello, co-CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Philadelphia. Waller called the meeting, he said, in hopes the crowd would find “affirmation of the Boys and Girls Club and their intended purposes in our community.”

This was a wholly different atmosphere than the previous open meeting which Marziello attended in the neighborhood, some two years ago. Then, a contingent of residents who live near the Germantown Boys and Girls Club, led by the Penn Knox Neighborhood Association, pushed back about the physical footprint of the project. Their concerns derived in part from spatial considerations — the club lies on a slender, one-way street — and in part from an historic preservation ethic. Dissenting voices seized on the potentially transformative effects that might arise from a $20-million development of an ice rink, gymnasium, and education center. Not just the foot and car traffic, but how the physical character of the neighborhood would be fundamentally altered by the demolition and construction of a new facility.

Monday night’s meeting was not entirely devoid of skepticism or dissent, but it was largely a partisan affair. Not until two-thirds of the meeting had passed was there any mention of preservation, the historic character of the Boys and Girls Club’s building, or the pending nomination to add the property to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places — which could derail current plans to build a new club. Instead, the roughly 150 attendees (eyeballed estimate) seated inside a church that comfortably fits 850 people listened to mostly praise for the project.

The audience was overwhelmingly African-American, which is especially important to recognize, given the rancor of recent debate surrounding the project. Some proponents have questioned whether the preservation-minded detractors’ opposition to the project has less to do with red brick masonry and the aesthetic appeal of the structure; rather, it’s been suggested they’re trying to keep out an influx of black and brown teenagers from frequenting the quaint residential block on which the building sits. (Preservation advocates have consistently denied this accusation.)

Divisions were not so black and white at the meeting. Most of the pointed questions about the new Boys and Girls Club were voiced by African-American residents, as was most of the unsolicited enthusiasm. What little argument occurred about the building’s historic nature took place between the (mostly) white presenters on the side of the nonprofit and the (mostly) white members of the Penn Knox Neighborhood Association present. That’s not to say race isn’t underpinning the discussion — it’s uniquely baked into Germantown’s history — but the individuals most eager to see race in this case have tended to be white. 

The meeting was dominated by platitudes about the virtues of the Boys and Girls Club and youth hockey — which nobody, even detractors of the development plans, called into question. “Comcast has given us a gift — a gift of progress, a gift of hope and opportunity for 7,100 kids who live a mile and a half from our Germantown Club,” said Marziello, who took the mic after Waller. Comcast has committed to raising $40 million for the Boys and Girls Club of Philadelphia, including the funding needed to revamp the location in Germantown, which will be renamed the Ralph J. Roberts Boys and Girls Club should the plan come to fruition. Should the project materialize as the organization has conceived, a $5-per-year membership would provide access to a bevy of state-of-the-art facilities housed within the new club. According to Marziello, they’d include: a “kids cafe” where pupils could learn to cook fresh vegetables, set tableware, create recipes; a music and sound studio where they could record their own CDs; a STEM and literary center; a center for college and career preparation. Plus, ice hockey and ice skating at no additional cost, provided by the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation.

A parade of speakers testified to the betterment that these services could bring to children. Virlen Reyes, a Kensington native and college graduate credited the youth hockey program with launching her on a path of educational enrichment: “For the thousands of young people like myself who have been lucky enough to discover organizations like Snider Hockey and the Boys and Girls Club of Philadelphia, we have a beautiful edge in life,” Reyes said.

Following a brisk overview of what the project would entail, attendees were invited to ask questions and offer feedback. The first woman from the public asked what had changed with the project from two years ago, referencing the confrontational Penn Knox Neighborhood Association meeting. While the size of the plans has shrunk from its original scale (the new club is now projected to occupy 60,000 square feet, down from 80,000), there were no other discernible changes announced. The project would still require modifications to the street edge, while the Boys and Girls Club maintains that it will try to marry the architecture of the building with the surrounding neighborhood.

Several community members voiced concerns about the impact on parking and traffic that a hockey rink and revamped facilities might have. Others wondered if a flashy new Germantown club might produce deleterious consequences for the nearby Wissahickon Boys Club, the oldest youth organization serving young African-American boys in the country.

There was not a peep from the preservation community until nearly an hour in, when Connie Winters, a member of the neighborhood association and owner of a dozen homes in Germantown, spoke. “When will there be an opportunity for the Penn Knox Neighbors to give their side of this story? Because there is another side to this story,” she said. Namely, what she objected to in the presentation at Enon was the lack of discussion about alternative sites to place a new Germantown Boys and Girls Club. “I don’t think anybody is against the facility. The problem is the location.”

Winters, along with many preservationists, feels that the historic integrity of the current club — and its anchoring effect on the neighborhood — are being overlooked. At its core, their frustration results from a fundamental disagreement about the condition of the current club that is more than a century old. While representatives of the Boys and Girls Club bandied about words like “dilapidated” and “obsolete” at the meeting, only a fraction of the structure has been deemed unsafe by the Department of Licenses & Inspections. But that designation, according to L&I Commissioner Dave Perri (who recently spoke to PlanPhilly), isn’t  “a pretext for demolishing the entire building.”

The Penn Knox Neighborhood Association argues that the building is a prime candidate for an adaptive reuse, be it apartments or offices, just as the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf has reused colonial-era buildings a few blocks away. The neighborhood group presented a list of vacant land where the nonprofit might consider construction, in lieu of demolishing the old club. But the Boys and Girls Club wasn’t having any of it Monday night.

“This is a situation where historic preservation is being turned on its head and used for a purpose that’s not really what it is intended for,” said Jerry Goodman, an attorney representing the Boys and Girls Club in the designation process.

On Wednesday, a Philadelphia Historical Commission committee will consider an application to designate the club at 25 Penn Street as historic. A designation by the Historical Commission would delay the development from moving forward, at least until a legal fight over a hardship case could  conclude. Ultimately, the designation could force the plans to be scrapped altogether.

In front of the crowd at Enon, Goodman framed the preservationists’ concerns as quibbles that should be overlooked for the public good. “Historic preservation laws came into being to protect the public interest,” Goodman said. “The problem here is that if you preserve this building, you’re dooming this institution and its use. So it does not serve the public interest to keep this structure in place.” These comments produced the biggest applause of the evening.

While the atmosphere had the semblance of a public-relations campaign, there was undeniable enthusiasm for the project inside Enon. When a Penn Knox resident stepped up to the mic, not long after Winters, there were audible grumbles from the audience about the preservation concerns she raised.**

In the end, the Reverend Waller asked for an unofficial headcount to gauge interest in the project. “Please stand if you’re in support of what they’re doing,” he said. At least 80 percent of the audience stood. But the way in which Waller asked the question — as a simplistic yay or nay, with no alternative presented — irked the preservation-minded contingent in attendance. The same could be said of the entire proceeding.

“Quite frankly it’s baffling that in planning for a $20+ million facility there was no consideration given to its location,” said Oscar Beisert, a preservation advocate who jointly wrote the nomination (along with the Penn Knox neighborhood group) to designate the property as historic. Beisert would like to have seen a study of potential sites — Germantown has a high number of underutilized or vacant parcels — concluded before deciding on the demolition. “A few people tried to broach the subject of location but they were immediately shut down with lectures on property rights and allegations of racism,” Beisert said.

On the other hand, Marziello questioned why the nonprofit would seek to sell its current location and find a new parcel, when the organization — not just the building — has been a mainstay of the neighborhood for more than a century. “We’ve been there for 130 years; we want to be there for another 130 more,” she said.

CORRECTIONS: * In an earlier version of the article we misspelled Rev. Dr. Alyn Waller’s last name.  ** We misidentified this idividual as Sue Patterson, it was not. PlanPhilly regrets these errors. 

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