West Philly’s new council rep blasts West Park tower sale

Philadelphia City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Newly elected West Philadelphia City Council rep Jamie Gauthier is challenging a Philadelphia Housing Authority plan to sell two of the last public housing high-rises in her district.

Gauthier, in a passionate speech to her council colleagues Thursday, questioned the PHA’s efforts to sell a third of its West Park Apartment site. The authority is seeking offers for two of the three 150-unit towers on the 12-acre site just north of 46th and Market Streets.

“PHA is working with a national for-profit firm to market the properties, and the sale announcement reads ‘profit-driven,’ expressing no preference for equitable development and no commitment to avoiding displacement of vulnerable communities,” said Gauthier.

Bidding on the land began this week and will close at the end of the month. The listing has already generated “tremendous interest” from potential buyers, PHA spokeswoman Nichole Tillman told PlanPhilly.

The housing authority first announced the proposal in October, after years of conversations with residents about extensive repair needs in the 1960s-era towers, according to PHA.

“Planning for the redevelopment of West Park Apartments began more than three years ago, spurred on by PHA and resident concerns about the lack of funding to address serious and ongoing capital needs and ever-increasing operating costs,” Tillman said in a written statement. “Residents have demanded that PHA replace this obsolete, poorly designed complex with new housing.”

In November of 2019, Gauthier’s predecessor, Jannie Blackwell, changed the land-use rules for the site to allow for denser, mixed-use development, and more flexibility. Such a rezoning generally increases property values and helps attract corporate developers who don’t want to limited by restrictive regulations.

Kelvin Jeremiah, PHA President and CEO, has said that all of the public housing units lost in the sale would be replaced either on the site or in nearby neighborhoods. The final remaining tower will be converted to seniors-only housing while new low-rise housing will be built on land PHA isn’t selling, according to PHA plans.

All West Park families, Jeremiah said, will have a right-to-return when the authority completes the new townhouses.

“PHA is committed to maintaining affordability in communities that are increasingly becoming unaffordable, to counteract gentrification and displacement of its residents,” Tillman said.

But Gauthier said that a more transparent and equitable public planning process should decide the future of the 1960s-era development, a bastion of affordability in a part of the city where rents are rising, and new construction is rapidly reconfiguring the landscape.

The councilmember said PHA failed to talk with people in the surrounding neighborhoods about what they want to see at the site, one of the last significant redevelopment opportunities in the area.

Publicly held land in a gentrifying neighborhood should not be given up to the highest bidder, Gauthier proclaimed.

“Publicly owned real estate assets like the West Park development are the biggest tool that we have in government to thwart the negative effect of gentrification in our neighborhoods,” said Gauthier. “This is why I’m so deeply troubled that this sale is being rushed through with inadequate thought and care being given to the possible repercussions.”

Tillman, the PHA spokesperson, defended the agency against those characterizations.

“PHA has had multiple meetings with West Park residents, elected and appointed officials at the federal, state, and local levels to discuss redevelopment options,” she said. “As PHA made clear during those meetings, West Park Apartments requires more than $50 million in capital investments, funding PHA currently lacks, thus making repairs and rehabilitation of all three towers infeasible.”

West Park sits within easy walking distance of several grocery stores, the 46th Street elevated train stop and many health care facilities. It is also right next to Drexel University’s extensive playing fields. Current residents say they don’t want to give up their proximity to shopping options, transit, and other daily destinations.

“Everything is right here that you need. We have the subway, the Dunkin Donuts, the churches right there. It’s very convenient,” Yvonne Gibbs, a longtime resident, said.

But Gibbs also said her apartment and those of her neighbors need work. “It is deteriorating, the pipes is no good, and the floods we have in here, Lord Jesus. Everything is getting rusted,” she said.

That’s because Congress has cut off half of the traditional public housing program’s capital funding since 2000, causing housing authorities across the country to turn to the private market to secure money for repairs.

The repair needs of the West Park towers alone almost equal the annual capital budget of Philadelphia’s entire public housing system.

Gauthier said that she wants to make sure that the city and her constituents get all that they can out of the deal.

“Further to whom the towers are sold and what is put in their stead absolutely matters for the future of equity in the Third District,” said Gauthier. “I am calling on PHA to not just sell this site to the highest bidder.”

Gauthier’s fellow freshman Councilmember Isaiah Thomas gave a speech supporting her stance on the West Park sale.

“I too am very concerned about the sale of that particular piece of property and the housing crisis in the city of Philadelphia,” said Thomas. “I will be supporting her in whatever effort she comes up with to ensure residents are not displaced.”

Tillman said that PHA would continue to “engage” with residents, elected officials, and others as “we move forward with plans to dramatically improve the quality of life for West Park residents.”

PHA has scheduled a meeting with Gauthier to better understand her concerns, Tillman said.

 

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on Friday, February 7, 2019, to include comments from the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

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

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal