Queen Lane Apartments demo in limbo as archaeologists, historic-preservation experts plan Potter’s Field visit

Archaeological exploration could begin by mid-November to determine if remains of those once buried at a Germantown Potter’s Field lie beneath the site of the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s Queen Lane project.

A team of archaeologists and historic preservation experts will be at the now-empty Queen Lane Apartments within weeks to more closely study areas where a radar survey showed underground anomalies. Their findings will likely be the key factor determining when the existing apartment tower would come down and what, if anything, PHA can rebuild at the site.

Local representatives of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development hosted an update meeting Thursday at their Center City offices, as part of an ongoing federally-mandated historic preservation assessment and review.

Historical background

The 1950s-era Queen Lane housing project was built atop a vacant plot that had been resting place to indigents, black people, and “strangers” who had no family or friends to bury them, since 1755.

There are neighborhood accounts of bones emerging from the ground during the earlier building, but so far, no solid information on what was dug up or where it all went. The next step in the process is “ground truthing,” or digging near the anomalies.

“Nothing’s been disturbed. What we’re trying to do is get the best delineation of the Potter’s Field” while exploring as small an area as possible, said Paul Lehmann, regional environmental officer for HUD. “This Potter’s Field could be much bigger than we thought.”

The last tenants moved out of Queen Lane last November and the apartment building was to have been torn down months ago, but the Potter’s Field re-discovery and the issues surrounding it have put the project a year behind, officials have said.

Logistical details

The ground radar was done in June. Late last month, PHA went before the city Zoning Board to have lot lines on the property redrawn to reflect their current plan, a roughly two-acre open area fronting Queen Lane where the Potter’s Field had been, with homes surrounding it on three sides fronting Pulaski Avenue, Priscilla and Penn streets.

Maps of the area from 1895 and 1910 show a similar layout of properties around the Potter’s Field, and the current PHA plan keeps to those boundaries.

Excavation will be done at three spots on the far end of the Potter’s Field, toward Penn Street, said Mary Alfson Tinsman of Cultural Heritage Research Services Inc.

Crews will work in as small an area as possible, she said, but there will be heavy equipment on the site to remove any paving and topsoil to get to what’s beneath before hand digging and scraping. The process should take about four weeks.

“The goal is to leave bodies in place, we’re not trying to disinter anyone,” she said.

The existence of houses around the Potter’s Field before the housing project went up adds another dimension.

In one spot, archaeologists will be looking for at a spot that came up on the ground-penetrating radar as a perfectly rectangular shape, but in a location just outside the Potter’s Field, in a place where there had never been a building, Tinsman said.

“We know that there were houses, we know that there were wells, we know that there were privies,” and anything like that revealed during the dig would also be historically significant, she said.

Community outreach

PHA officials began meeting with residents and neighborhood activists in 2010 to talk about its plans, but cancelled the gatherings after the radar study was done. With the troubled PHA still under HUD control, the federal agency seems to be now publicly taking the lead.

HUD division director Monica Hawkins said that from now on, the agency would coordinate monthly briefings on the Queen Lane project, either through meetings like the one held Thursday or through emails and conference calls.

At the meeting Thursday, Germantown residents echoed their complaints that the site is not being maintained and is attracting trash and crime.

There are also questions about promises made, and which will be kept.

Neighbors react

Corliss Gray, president of the Queen Lane Tenant Council, said PHA promised displaced residents that many would be able to come back, as 55 new housing units would be replaced there.

At the same time, PHA has pledged that no building will take place over the Potter’s Field, and acting executive director of housing operations Michael Johns said that meant even if it meant building nothing at all at the site.

Gray wanted assurances that the money to rebuild housing at Queen Lane was safe and that “whatever you all do, the residents of PHA are still entitled to those 55 units.”

Johns said the money for the new development was still there but that other PHA funds were being spent on the Section 106 review.

“At some point, there may be an effect on the project,” he said. “We don’t know.”

In the end, it will likely be the results of the archeological dig and the historic review that set a course of action, Lehmann said.

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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