Redevelopment Authority seeking proposals for Germantown YWCA, again

The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA) issued a Request For Proposals (RFP) for the Germantown YWCA on Monday, seeking a developer to rehab the unoccupied property on Germantown Avenue, which has sat vacant for years.

“The proposed rehab should take into consideration the local context and provide attractive, well-designed development that enhances the quality of the built environment and improves the overall quality and physical appearance of the community,” the RFP says.

The same goals were outlined in a previous RFP issued in 2014, but few developers pursued the opportunity. The only bid came from local developer Ken Weinstein, who proposed low-income senior housing in partnership with Mission First Housing Group at the site. But the proposal didn’t garner the approval of the PRA, or, more importantly, Councilwoman Cindy Bass, who disagreed with the proposed usage.

“There seems to be a little bit of desperation – ‘Well, let’s take anything that comes along rather than have it torn down,’ ” said Bass last February to Philly.com. Instead, Bass wanted “people to really think what they would like to have on the site.”

The Germantown YWCA was known historically for being one of the first integrated Y facilities, and served as a community hub until 2006, when it was shuttered. The PRA foreclosed on the property in 2009. It has sat unoccupied for the last ten years, leading to fairly significant damage to the external facade and interior structure, and it suffered a fire.

Fears about the building’s future were stoked when the Department of Licenses & Inspections classified it as imminently dangerous, but these were mollified last spring when a more extensive inspection was performed. Councilwoman Bass and PRA allocated funds to weatherizing and stabilizing the property.           

The stabilization, it turns out, ended up being important for the property’s marketability. Jamila Davis, spokeswoman for the Division of Housing and Community Development, said that investment in the property “puts the building in a different baseline condition than it was previously.”

Another factor in driving new interest in the property, Davis said, is that the real estate market is “somewhat stronger now than it was a few years prior.” And according to Davis, it worked; the PRA saw several inquiries from developers in the time between RFPs

The RFP makes it clear that the developer must take the needed renovations into account, along with recognizing the building’s status on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. But paramount to the PRA—and to Councilwoman Bass—is the creation of a thoughtful plan for the YWCA, which sits on an important stretch of Germantown Avenue.

The YWCA sits next to Vernon Park, which recently received a $1.2 million renovation, improving lighting, updating paths and benches, and providing a new playground and fitness stations. A problem business on the corner of the park (and close to the YWCA), Lee’s Steaks and Hoagies, recently had its liquor license revoked, decreasing the number of loiterers in the park.

Friends of Vernon Park’s Bob Seeley said the organization’s primary concern was to save the building, given its tumultuous status for the past decade. According to Seeley, the derelict building “had been a problem for the park and the neighborhood.”

And while Friends of Vernon Park has no official position on what they would like to see happen to the property, Seeley said that he would personally “hope that any development is sensitive to history of the building and its character,” adding that he looks forward to a time “when the building is once again an asset to the neighborhood.”

The base zoning requires ground floor commercial use, citing examples of potential use from professional offices and retail to restaurants and artist studios. No residential use is allowed on the ground floor frontage.*

By moving away from proposals that would limit the property to low-income housing use, Councilwoman Bass recognizes that the building’s next chapter could contribute to improving the area and strengthening Germantown Avenue.

“I do think because it’s on a commercial corridor, it does hold a special place to get attention, and to attract the investment it should get,” Bass said speaking to PlanPhilly about the building in early July.

Bass said she understands the importance of engaging the neighborhood in the future of the YWCA. “The community will be made aware of what has been submitted,” said Bass, adding that she would be happy to host a meeting for those who live in the area to discuss and give feedback on the potential plans for the site.

Also important in the review process is looking at the viability of each project. “Which makes sense? Who has financial wherewithal to implement the projects?” said Bass.

There will be two site tours for potential developers on July 27th and August 10th, with proposals due September 16th. A timeline offered by the PRA suggests proposals will be chosen by September 30th, with an agreement drafted by mid-October.

As the project moves forward throughout the fall, Bass was optimistic about the progress made thus on Germantown Ave.

“There’s a lot happening in Germantown. It will take time, but we’re excited to be on right path.”

*Correction: An earlier version of this article state that the RFP requires ground-floor commercial. The RFP, rather, describes underlying zoning. Developers would still be able to see zoning changes or variances. PlanPhilly regrets the error.

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