YWCA thrusts issues of development to ‘forefront’ of Germantown

The YWCA in Germantown.

The YWCA in Germantown. (Bas Slabbers/WHYY)

On a weekday afternoon in mid-March, the doors to the old Germantown YWCA building gaped open. A workman was oiling their hinges and trying to get the two doors to close again. There’s a face on them in squiggles of black, blue, yellow, and red — one half of the face painted on each side, its eyes closed, and its nose now lopsidedly pierced on either side to allow for a thick chain and padlock.

The YWCA has been the site of a lot of controversy this season in Germantown, and the worker didn’t want to identify himself or who he was working for to NewsWorks. Neither did the six people in hardhats who emerged from the doors a short while later, except one who said he was a commercial real estate broker.

What were they doing inside?

“Looking at the dilapidation,” he said.

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Seeing people standing outside the building, a hopeful man in a navy-blue van on Germantown Avenue stopped and yelled out the window to ask if they needed help with cleaning the place.

“Did you finally open the YWCA and fix it?” a woman across the street shouted, also noticing the activity. “Either tear it down, or fix it!”

YWCA building saved

On March 19, amid a growing community push to save the historic building from the specter of demolition, which brought a large crowd to a Jan. 22 Germantown United CDC-organized meeting, Eighth District Councilwoman Cindy Bass’s office suddenly announced the YWCA’s salvation.

According to Bass’s statement, $2.2 million of the District’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative funds will join about $1.8 million from the building’s current owner, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, “to rehab the property and make the building safe and stable.”

Locals like West Rockland Project Leader Emaleigh Doley were pleased by the news, but many questions still remain about the actual condition of the building, who’s interested in it, and what the timeline for the request for proposal is. 

A dire situation?

Doley, chatting with NewsWorks about the announcement, referred back to a question she posed on her Rockland Street blog in January: “Is this sudden threat of demolition an attempt to whip neighbors into a frenzy and force stakeholders and the Councilwoman to endorse the proposal, or is the building actually about to fall over?”

For her, that question still hasn’t been answered. She launched a website and an online petition to save the YWCA that garnered 737 signatures before the NTI announcement.

A former L&I report called the building dangerous, and both PRA executive director Brian Abernathy and prospective developer Ken Weinstein said at the Jan. 22 meeting that the building would cost far more to stabilize and reuse than it would to demolish. But a new L&I report that Bass told NewsWorks was completed in mid-March had better news.

Bass wouldn’t elaborate on the details of the new report, but said it confirms that the YWCA, despite its years of damage by fire and vandalism, “is not imminently dangerous,” and any fears to the contrary have no basis in fact.

“There was speculation that this property was getting ready to be torn down, and the Department of Licensing and Inspections went out and inspected it and said that is not accurate,” she said. The agency “was correcting what was a rumor, so we have the facts now, and I operate solely on the basis of fact, not rumor.”

“I disagree with that assessment,” Doley said of Bass’s insistence that word of the building’s doom was a community rumor that wasn’t initiated or substantiated by the City.

“Even though the facts about the condition of the building were not presented” at the Jan. 22 meeting, she said, Doley felt that Abernathy indicated “the situation was quite dire.”

Abernathy, who spoke with NewsWorks after the Jan. 22 meeting, now declines to comment, even after the NTI announcement.

“The only thing we would add is that the PRA is working with the Councilwoman and the community to stabilize the current structure, and then determine the best fit for the project,” a spokesperson for the Office of Housing and Community Development said on Abernathy’s behalf.

Bass won’t identify other potential developers, but said she’s spoken to “a number of developers, most of whom are local, who have a significant interest in the property.” According to her, suggestions include market-rate residential units, recreational usage, and office and retail space.

“We’re very interested once the RPF goes out to see what actually materializes.”

Requests to L&I for details on the YWCA report went unanswered.

As Doley put it, “we don’t have a lot of concrete information.”

A ‘bit of overzealousness’

“I believe that there was a push to accept the one proposal that we had,” Bass added of neighborhood worries about demolition following the rejection of the proposal last fall from Weinstein and partners Mission First Housing Group and Center in the Park.

That “bit of overzealousness” and fear became a motivating factor in the discussion and its sense of urgency, Bass said.

So were neighbors’ evident concern for the site and the hundreds of signatures on Doley’s petition factors in the March announcement of funds to save the building?

No, Bass said.

“I appreciate the effort put behind it, [but] it didn’t have an impact on what was happening, because it was already happening,” she said, nevertheless lauding Doley’s efforts. “This train had already left the station before she started circulating the petition.”

“I do think that…keeping a conversation at the forefront in the community and among our elected leaders and other agencies of the city, and in the media, certainly does something,” Doley argued. “I wouldn’t say that it’s completely responsible for anyone’s decision,” but she believes that without the community traction, the outcome could have been very different.

Whether or not community response spurred any action on the part of City Council or the PRA, Doley said the controversy has been worthwhile.

“The conversation around development is more at the forefront of the neighborhood,” she said. “Those are all extraordinary wins that will go far beyond the development of the YWCA [and] spread throughout Germantown. That’s really, really valuable.”

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