Germantown Potter’s Field controversy goes before the Zoning Board

The Philadelphia Housing Authority’s plan to demolish the Queen Lane Apartments and rebuild public housing in Germantown is now before the Zoning Board of Adjustment, while the city and neighbors await final word on an 18th-century Potter’s Field beneath the site itself.

PHA officials appeared before the ZBA on Wednesday seeking variances to redraw lot lines and replace the now-empty apartment high-rise with five buildings including 55 new residences, in a mix of townhouses and apartments.

Their plan would create two new parcels, one a square atop the burial ground believed to hold the centuries-old remains of African-Americans, the other a U-shaped lot that would wrap around the Potter’s Field and hold the housing units.

Delay sought

However, community activists, including members of Avenging The Ancestors Coalition, sought to have the hearing delayed and packed the zoning hearing room with Germantown residents.

Previously, ATAC successfully fought to have the presence of African slaves owned by George Washington acknowledged at what is now the site of the President’s House near Independence Hall.

Opponents to the PHA plan maintain no variance should be granted until the results of a historical review and ground survey come back with a definitive answer on the exact size and contents of the Potter’s Field.

Further, they argue that the entire site should be preserved as a park, and PHA should reject a dense housing plan in favor of scattered-site housing on any of the dozens of vacant lots the city owns in the immediate neighborhood.

PHA response

Michael Johns, PHA’s acting executive director of housing operations, said the agency decided to rebuild homes on the Queen Lane site after feedback from residents there who wanted to stay in the neighborhood.

He argued that the variance should be granted because the project is already more than year behind, putting funding at risk, and PHA want to be ready to proceed at the moment the results of the historic preservation review are complete.

The so-called “Section 106 review” is required whenever federal money, in this case Department of Housing and Urban Development funds and tax credits, are to be used on a property with historic significance.

Design altered

The original PHA plan to replace the Queen Lane Apartments, which NewsWorks reported in July 2011, showed a ring of homes, offices and retail units surrounding a small playground. That design changed after the Potter’s Field became an issue.

Housing officials have not argued the presence of the burial ground, and a ground-penetrating radar test showed the presence of what could be remains. The issue is whether the size of the Potter’s Field shown on the PHA’s site plans is the correct one.

“If it’s determined that the Potter’s Field goes beyond the boundaries on our plan, then we’ll deal with that as we go forward,” Johns said in an interview after the meeting.

Meanwhile, the 1950s-era Queen Lane Apartments building now sits empty, the adjacent Wissahickon Playground fenced off and some neighbors claim it is attracting more crime to an already troubled neighborhood.

Historical debate

Yvonne Haskins, the attorney representing civic groups and neighbors, said historical records show the Potter’s Field was a two-acre square.

Plans shown by PHA at the hearing, and shared over the course of 11 different meetings with the community in recent months, do not specify exactly two acres, said the agency’s attorney Walter Tolliver.

“We’re not building anything on top of Potter’s Field,” Tolliver said, noting that even if the variances were granted Wednesday, PHA cannot proceed with demolition until the results of the Section 106 review.

Barbara Hogue, executive director of Historic Germantown, said, “the information that we’ve discovered is that the Potter’s Field is a much larger area than they’re proposing.”

Further delay

The variance application came before the ZBA with statements of support from Eighth District Councilwoman Cindy Bass and the city Planning Commission.

In the end, the ZBA did not take a vote, but asked Tolliver and PHA to provide more information within two weeks about the expected timetable for results of the Section 106 review.

NewsWorks has partnered with independent news gatherer PlanPhilly to provide regular, in-depth, timely coverage of planning, zoning and development news. Contact Amy Z. Quinn at azquinn@planphilly.com.

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