Germantown neighbors fortify opposition to Wissahickon Playground demolition

Despite a raging rainstorm, several dozen people gathered Wednesday night at Canaan Baptist Church on Pulaski Avenue to publicly oppose the proposed demolition of the nearby Wissahickon (or Kelly) Playground.

The meeting was also an unsuccessful attempt to tell the Philadelphia Housing Authority of their concerns. They will have that chance next week, though.

While PHA did not attend the second such community meeting to which it was invited, officials informed the Northwest Neighbors of Germantown via letter that they welcome the neighborhood to attend the agency’s Dec. 15 public meeting at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church.

The PHA, which owns the Queen Lane Apartments complex and adjacent playground, plans to demolish both in order to build 55 low-income apartments along the perimeter of the square. While neighbors say they support demolishing the half-century-old high rise that attracted crime, drugs and violence, they do not abide by eliminating the playground.

The $1 deal a major issue

Of particular interest to them is the fact that a city ordinance, which was sponsored by outgoing City Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller, transferred the $176,000 land on which the playground sits to PHA for $1. Attendees were not zeroed in on a solution.

Some, like former Eighth District City Council candidate Greg Paulmier, wanted to lobby politicians to fix it. Paulmier has been fighting the playground demolition since September by gathering petition signatures against the project. He said he wanted to reach out to federal officials and incoming City Councilwoman Cindy Bass.

“If a councilperson can convey the land, they can take it back too,” he said of Bass, who attended the last public meeting.

When contacted for comment about the land transfer, PHA spokeswoman Nichole Tillman said it is “common practice for city agencies” when dealing with other departments. Tillman also noted that PHA will invest nearly $24 million by the end of the Queen Lane project.

Could the project disturb a burial ground?

According to the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, the high-rise was built in 1955 on the site of Potter’s Field. The Alliance’s website states, “In 1755, a lot on Queen Lane was purchased for ‘all strangers, Negroes, and Mulattoes as die in any part of Germantown forever.'”

Those opposed to demolition said Wednesday that they could conceivably use the historic site as grounds to stop the project.

“It just gave me goosebumps to think [the cemetery is] existing and we’re not honoring that,” said Catherine Adams, who brought her daughter Ursula to both meetings.

Alex Darlett, a Germantown Historical Society and urban archeologist, said it is “very likely” that the built-upon Potter’s Field still contains buried remains.

“If they build beyond the high-rise footprint, they might have some trouble,” he said.

For PHA’s part, Tillman said the issue has been deal with before and that they “respect Potter’s Field’s historic significance. We will follow all regulations regarding preserving this area.”

Home-ownership issue lingers

In response to calls at last week’s meeting to steer the project away from rental properties, PHA said it attempted to apply for homeownership-program funding but were denied.

In fact, the agency said it is still seeking the Low Income Housing Tax Credit for four-percent tax credits for a nearly $20 million project. Residents said they were told PHA would submit its application to the Philadelphia Housing Finance Agency by Dec 1. As of Dec. 6 , PHFA spokesman Elliott Scott said no application had arrived.

Winona Street resident Rosetta Williams called bluff.

“They can build low-income homes for people to own,” said Williams whose mother bought a new home with a fixed mortgage from PHA four decades ago.

Thomas Morgan, the Democratic committeeman for the 12th Ward 11th division, is also skeptical. He questioned the financial benefit of renting property to what he called “lifelong” PHA tenants.

“PHA don’t want to come to meetings they can’t control,” he said. A longtime athletic coach, Morgan now goes to Nicetown his teams can play on grass fields as opposed to the Wissahickon Playground. “We were playing sports on concrete. They painted a football field on concrete and then painted a track around it. It’s insulting.”

For her part, state Rep. Rosita Youngblood said PHA had not contacted her office about the demolition, which contradicts a letter sent to Northwest Neighbors stating that Youngblood knew about the project since last year. She said Thursday she was “blindsided” entirely.

What’s next?

Northwest Neighbors is seeking grant money or corporate sponsorship to help match money they plan to raise in an effort to save the playground, but PHA is unwilling to change plans. Tillman said the land is needed to house 55 rental units with a central green space, play area and community room that will be open to everyone.

They will hold a meeting at Mt. Moriah on Jan. 5 to allow residents to weigh in on the courtyard design. However, critics are already critical.

“A play area can be a 4-foot by 4-foot space in the backyard of a random building,” Williams said. “There’s no reason to tear down the one we have unless you are going to make something smaller.”

The group formed a “steering committee” to help gather more petition signatures – there were only 50 as of Wednesday night – before next week’s meeting.

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