Temporary settlement with PHA gives hope for outdoor space near Queen Lane Apartments site

 Vacant land behind the former site of the Queen Lane Apartments is part of the proposed play space area. (Jimmy Viola/for NewsWorks, file)

Vacant land behind the former site of the Queen Lane Apartments is part of the proposed play space area. (Jimmy Viola/for NewsWorks, file)

They came ready for a fight, but walked away with a compromise.

On Thursday, Germantown residents packed courtroom 414 in City Hall for the start of a trial aimed, on paper, at saving Wissahickon Playground. 

The historic, roughly one-acre plot near Pulaski Avenue and Penn Street was dismantled to make way for a now under-construction and largely supported public housing development. That was done illegally, according to a civil complaint filed in Common Pleas Court in March.

Four hours later, though, a temporary settlement had been reached with the Philadelphia Housing Authority that, if finalized, will give birth to a pair of recreation spaces near the former home of Wissahickon Playground and, perhaps, more.

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A “state of the art” basketball court is proposed for a city-owned lot on Newhall Street. A children’s playground, or “tot lot,” is proposed for a private, residential parcel at the corner of Penn and Morris Streets. The owner has verbally agreed to donate the vacant land to the city.

Both spaces, about a quarter-acre combined, are less than a block away from where Wissahickon Playground once stood.

Both projects would be completed over the next year with the help of up to $500,000 from PHA’s operating and capital budgets. PHA’s board approved those funds a little over a week ago during its May board meeting.

The city would maintain the court and the playground, which would each close before 10 p.m.

The deal is, for the time being, a relief for PHA, who is spending $24 million to redevelop the former home of Wissahickon Playground and Queen Lane Apartments. After nearly six decades, the 16-story high-rise was imploded. A 55-unit, low-density development will replace the tower.

If the suit were successful, construction could, at some point, be halted.

“The alternative is just not acceptable,” said PHA’s President Kelvin Jeremiah outside the courtroom.

Neighbors in attendance appeared to have mixed feelings about the terms of the settlement. The two spaces are much smaller than the original Wissahickon Playground.

Samuel Stretton, who is prosecuting the case, still believes strongly in the case, but called the settlement “a wise resolution” given how long a complaint could potentially take to litigate — two or three years by his estimate.

“We agree that they are wrong, but that’s not the game we’re playing now,” said Stretton. “

“It’s a start,” added Greg Paulmier, the case’s lead plaintiff. “It’s the direction of trying to come together as a community.”

The two sides are scheduled to reconvene August 27. At that time, the settlement will be finalized or a trial will proceed as originally planned.

The complaint, filed March 3, maintains that PHA, the City of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development violated the state’s Public Trust Doctrine and constitution as a result.

“They can’t unilaterally get rid of open space that’s dedicated for parkland use,” said Stretton at the time.

The suit states that the city wrongly deeded the property to the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development in 2011 and that PAID then wrongly deeded it to the Philadelphia Housing Authority for development the day afterwards.

Both transfers, according to the suit, required Orphans’ Court approval given that a sale was “prohibited by the Public Trust Doctrine.”

Stretton made a similar argument in 2008 when he successfully saved a section of Burholme Park leased by the city from being annexed by the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Northeast Philadelphia.

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