Debate continues over Queen Lane Apartments demolition

Dozens of people turned out for a Philadelphia Housing Authority public meeting held last Thursday to discuss the planned demolition of the Queen Lane Apartments and Wissahickon Playground to make way for 55 low-income apartments along the perimeter of the square.

Those opposed to the Germantown project criticize a lack of homeownership programs, the loss of an adequate playground, the Low Income Housing Tax Credits administered by the Philadelphia Housing Finance Authority, how it could disturb a historic burial ground and the city’s land-transfer deal for the playground property.

After Northwest Neighbors of Germantown aired some of those concerns at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, outgoing City Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller’s legislative aide David Yurky announced that Miller appropriated “capital funding” to build a new playground. It would sit along the 300 block of West Queen Lane’s southside, on six lots for which the city would use eminent domain to attain if necessary.

“It’s actually a lot of land,” said Yurky of a plan for a new recreation area that will include a jungle gym, swings, basketball court and possibly a small grass playing field. “It doesn’t look like much, but it’s a lot.”

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Thomas Morgan, who is against the playground demolition, is not entirely sold.

“Don’t say that’s going to happen, then three weeks later, a month later or even a year later say things have changed and we couldn’t do it,” he said. “I just want to hold them to their word.”

A PHA official said he was pleasantly surprised, though.

“We had heard about a plan,” said Michael Johns, PHA general manager for community development and design. “It’s just good to hear that it has some legs.”

A buried history

Protestors said a coalition has been formed to protect the Potter’s Field site upon which the apartments were built in 1955. (According to the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, the land was purchased in 1755 as a burial ground for “all strangers, Negroes, and Mulattoes [who] die in any part of Germantown forever.”)

The group includes the Germantown Historical Society and Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, which joined the Northwest Neighbors of Germantown in requesting a pre-construction archeological study of the site.

PHA cited its resident archeologist, Ken Basalik, who says they plan to deal with any remains as needed and will do their best not to disturb the bodies. The agency plans to hold a ceremony and erect a monument to commemorate those buried there. Some say that’s not good enough.

“Prior to 1755 our ancestors were burnt, chopped up and fed to cattle, thrown in the river so to implode that building and incinerate anything that is left is not respecting the dead,” said Lisa Hopkins of the Northwest Neighbors who wants the building demolished but Potter’s Field preserved.

The Germantown Historical Society’s board noted another option that would both commemorate the burial ground and keep the project moving: Re-arrange the buildings.

“It’s not immediately obvious why something like this wouldn’t be possible, especially since you could get the same number of units in,” said GHS resident architect Pier DiCarlo, who sought consideration of two alternative architectural drawings.

PHA declined to comment on DiCarlo’s drawings, saying they needed time for review, but the PHFA tax-credit program states plans cannot be altered after the application is sent in, which the PHA said it already has.

Renting vs. Buying

Despite calls to offer home-buying opportunities within the new construction, Johns cited “an enormous need for affordable rental housing” in Germantown and beyond.

“We had 119 units at Queen Lane and we are committed to bring back less than half of that,” he said.

The development will be mixed income, with a third of the residents having an annual household income of $48,000 or less; Johns said there are more than 30,000 households on their waiting list for housing.

Neil Blunt, a longtime Germantown resident, agreed with the housing authority that economic times are tough and that, for many, foreclosure is more common than homeownership.

“All around the country, people can’t afford their houses,” he said, noting that opposition isn’t as widespread as one would think. “The majority of us want to see the program go forward.”

What happens next?

By the end of the meeting, state Sen. Shirley Kitchen said some issues linger, but not enough to stop demolition and construction.

“I’ve heard some legitimate concerns that need to be answered, but we need to resolve because the project has to move forward,” she said citing health, safety and crime issues.

PHA officials said their current green-space plan remains unsettled, other than the fact that it will only be open during the day as the gated community’s entrance will be locked for security at night.

The authority will host another meeting at Mt. Moriah Church on Jan. 5 to discuss the green space and play-area design plans.

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