Developer: ‘Germantown is ready to take off; it just needs a little push’

If the collapse and ongoing bankruptcy of Germantown Settlement left the neighborhood in possession of a legacy of corruption and neglect, consider the literal mess it left behind for developer Ken Weinstein.

Late last month, Weinstein, 48, completed foreclosure proceedings on the former Germantown Settlement Charter School campus at 4807-11 Germantown Ave. He’s now the owner of an 8.5-acre campus, originally a Catholic Church, school and convent, and everything left within.

The tidy former convent building has long been occupied by New Directions for Women, Inc., the alternative prison, but the other buildings have been empty since the school closed in 2009.

Weinstein bought the properties as is, meaning he now also owns:

• More than a dozen Ricoh office-sized copy machines, along with boxes of toner to feed them;

• Boxes full of office telephones, tangles of their wires overflowing onto the floors like seaweed;

• Scores of heavy, 19th-century wooden pews, wrenched from the church floor and scattered in haphazard groups around the sanctuary;

• Stacks of student desks reaching almost ceiling high — some still wrapped in plastic, seemingly never used — with hundreds of accompanying plastic chairs shoved into sloppy rows nearby;

• Innumerable textbooks and instructional materials, teaching aids and motivational posters, all urging students to do their best, and all now quietly rotting inside buildings rotting around them.

It’s not as if Weinstein, a principal in the Philly Office Retail group and owner of the Trolley Car Diner in Mount Airy (along with the Trolley Car Cafe in East Falls), is doing this simply out of the kindness of his heart.

He’s a businessman with a portfolio of about 400,000 square feet of property and 100 tenant units all across the city.

But there are things about Weinstein that certainly don’t sound like your average real-estate mogul looking to come in and take over a neighborhood.

Tour de Weinstein

Spend a few hours with Weinstein, touring the Germantown area in his white Prius, and he’ll talk passionately about wanting competition, and his desire to see other developers join him in writing the next chapter in the history of one of Philadelphia’s most historic neighborhoods.

“All we do is rehab vacant properties,” Weinstein says, jerking the steering wheel to pull over in front of one of the decaying properties he’s been trying — so far unsuccessfully — to buy. In coming months and years, Weinstein hopes to add about 200,000 square feet of property in Germantown.

If things go well and Weinstein gets this property, an aging storefront at Germantown Avenue and Duval Street that’s decaying so fast you can practically hear it happening, it could join a string of previous successes. Like the nuisance bar that later became the Earth Bread and Bakery. Or, the former “terrible, terrible building” that now houses the Wired Beans coffee shop.

But it takes time, and patience, to deal with property owners.

Good thing he’s in no rush

“On average, from originally looking at a building to final acquisition, it’s about three years,” he says. “We may never get it, or we might. It used to piss me off, but now it’s just part of the process.”

Sometimes the process is the biggest challenge.

For example, Weinstein also owns the former Charles Schaeffer School building two doors down from the former Charter School campus, but has been unable to make contact with the owners of record on the abandoned, fire-damaged church that sits in between.

“We’ve been trying to get them, reaching out, we’ve left notes on the door and we just can’t find anybody to talk to us,” he notes.

Inside the 15,000 square-foot Schaeffer School, which sits diagonally on the corner of East Abbottsford Avenue, is another mess. It had been used as a church, so there are yet more pews, along with a large fiberglass baptismal pool left marooned in the middle of the floor. However, preliminary gutting and re-framing work is underway and tenants are being sought.

Another recent purchase is the Animal Hospital building at 6943 Germantown Ave., on which renovations are about to begin. He’s not sure what will become of the building yet, but if it’s anything like his previous projects, it will likely involve creative, perhaps unconventional, approaches.

“Half of what I do is social investment, and half is financial investment,” he says. “I don’t want to be the only one, I can’t do this by myself. There should not be a ‘godfather.'”

“I don’t have competition and I want it”

Weinstein’s company won’t subsidize tenants to prop up their businesses, which can create a false sense of prosperity and growth. However, he says they will “build out” a space to a tenant’s specifications to help those with little startup capital get up and running, then work part of the cost into their rental agreements.

It’s a community-focused approach that he says has served him well.

“I think it’s why we’ve fared a little better than some of our colleagues,” Weinstein says. “I’m totally serious, and I know it’s not normal, but I don’t have competition and I want it. This can’t be one person. It can’t be one CDC.”

His comments echo those of experts who joined the newly-formed Germantown United CDC last week to talk about how to make that venture work, and why committed landlords are key.

Speaking of CDCs, Weinstein says it was a conscious decision on his part to incorporate as a for-profit business rather than a community development corporation, mostly to avoid being answerable to a board of directors, which he says gave him more flexibility.

“In a lot of ways, we are like a CDC, but we do our own thing,” he says.

That’s not just altruism talking. More competition means more properties moving, and everyone’s property values — his included — going up: “Isn’t that what everyone in Germantown wants, is for their properties to go up in value?”

It happened in Mount Airy, where Weinstein started investing 20 years ago. It took five years for others to take notice.

“All of a sudden I start getting calls from people outside Mount Airy,” he recalls. “People in Germantown need to invest in Germantown and to shop in Germantown, then the next step is to get other people to want to come here.”

Waiting game

Weinstein wheels the Prius to the curb again, in front of 5845 Germantown Ave., a ramshackle closed building with apartments above. It’s listed at $200,000; Weinstein says he figures about $75,000 is more realistic given the state of the building.

It’s a waiting, watching game. Wait too long, and the costs of rehab and repair can skyrocket.

“What got me to start investing here 22 years ago still exists,” he says of Germantown’s civic spirit and a strong activist nature that made him want to stay. “Germantown is ready to take off. It just needs a little push.”

****

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.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.