Nicetown CDC: Historical designation at Wayne Junction could spur growth

The name of the company is escaping her at the moment, but Nettie Boykin can still remember the sequence of steps involved in the job she held decades ago in a Wayne Junction factory.

“We made ball bearings for airplanes. We’d package them in oil, seal them up in a can, then seal that can in plastic,” recalled Boykin, who moved to Germantown in 1962, raised her kids there after her husband passed away, paid off her house long ago and has no intention of moving out — ever.

It’s that kind of emotional and physical investment in the neighborhood that brought Boykin and several dozen others out to a meeting Monday night to discuss a possible historic district designation for the formerly industrial district near the Wayne Junction train station.

How would it help?

SEPTA is about to begin a long-awaited, $33 million renovation of the historic station and headhouse. City Planning Commission staff are hoping to add national and city historic designations to spur rehabilitation and adaptive reuse of the sprawling former factory and warehouse complexes.

Northwest Community Planner Matt Wysong and City Planner Laura M. Spina led the meeting, highlighting the neighborhood’s industrial past and how the designations can help re-imagine the buildings as mixed-use developments.

From the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, the factories along the railroad tracks in Germantown and Nicetown took in shipments of raw materials and sent out tons of Philadelphia-made products each year. They included all types of textiles, ladies hosiery, glass X-ray plates, picture hangers, sheet metal, push pins, ball bearings, etching equipment that made newspaper illustrations possible, self-sharpening pencils and more.

“Wayne Junction was like a Silicon Valley back in the 1800s,” he said, noting sites like the New Glen Echo Mills, Moore Push-Pin, Blaisdell Paper Pencil Company, Max Levy Autograph Co., Brown Instrument Company and Arguto Oilless Bearing Company as key contributors to the city’s industrial heritage.

Attempted revival

Most are now empty and some are dilapidated, but many of the buildings have a lot going for them from thick wood floors meant to support heavy machinery to intricate facade details and distinctive architecture, Wysong said.

The sites are privately owned, and many have already been “up-zoned” from industrial uses to C3 commercial designation, which allows residential-commercial projects.

“If you can combine a greater density with a tax credit, it makes it easier to renovate them,” he said. The Nicetown CDC would help market the designation to potential developers, and they’re hoping local officials will get behind the effort.

“Something like this is going to be nothing but productive for the small businesses in the area,” said Majeedah Rashid, Nicetown CDC’s executive director. New retail and office spaces could provide affordable spaces for local entrepreneurs to set up shop, she said.

The tax credits cover about 20 percent of the cost of building rehab, and the new development must be in operation for five years after receiving the credit, Wysong said.

Designation a rarity in Philadelphia

Elsewhere in the city, only the Callowhill area around North Broad Street has an Industrial Historic District designation.

Wysong said the application to the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Review Board last winter identified 17 structures, built in stages from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries, for potential preservation and reuse. The National Park service makes the final designation.

Also, an application went in to the city’s Historical Commission, though Wysong said they haven’t yet been notified whether it will be considered. The historic preservation group Save Our Sites (SOS) identified 19 in the Wayne Junction area, PlanPhilly’s Alan Jaffe has reported.

“The real protection happens at the local level,” Wysong said.

Wysong said the state will hold a hearing on Feb. 7 to officially review the application, and they’re hopeful the city will consider the local application, too. Having both makes property owners not only eligible for the tax credits, but creates development regulations and guidelines for building rehab.

“[The city] definitely needs to get pushed so that they process that nomination,” Spina said.

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Contact Amy Z. Quinn at azquinn@planphilly.com.

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