by Stacia Friedman
While the pandemic has brought many businesses to a screeching halt, it has not slowed down Ken Weinstein, founder and president of Philly Office Retail, the powerhouse development company rejuvenating our region, one zip code at a time.
“During the construction shutdown, we were able to move Mount Airy Pediatrics from its former location to a larger space at 6673 Germantown Avenue, which previously was the home of Saint Michael’s Church,” said Weinstein. “We have also had a lot of demand for leasing. When we listed a two-bedroom Germantown Avenue apartment, we received over 100 calls, and, as of the first of this month, we are three months from finishing 19 condos at 7111 Germantown, the former Mount Airy Presbyterian Church.” (Bancroft Green is the development company working in partnership with Weinstein on the project.)
Anyone who has been following Weinstein knows that Germantown Avenue is his guiding star. In 1996, he renovated a 300-year-old house at 7402 Germantown Ave., turning it into Cresheim Cottage Café (home of Jansen restaurant today). A few years later, his Trolley Car Diner and Ice Cream Shop at 7619 Germantown Ave. (now closed) became a mecca for lovers of super-thick milkshakes, burgers and an eye-popping beer assortment. (All of these are still available at the Trolley Car Café’s East Falls.)
For those with a nose for real estate, Weinstein is the weathervane to watch. When he first moved to Germantown 30 years ago, he appreciated the area’s architectural integrity and began renovating properties in the Northwest. “I majored in economics and political science in college and was a political organizer for several years. That came in handy in dealing with zoning variances,” he said.
By 2000, Weinstein was taking on bigger projects, including the renovation of SEPTA’s Allens Lane Train Station. “It was a Frank Furness building. SEPTA gave us a 20-year lease. We created a two-bedroom apartment on the second floor and a café downstairs which appealed to commuters,” he said. Another Frank Furness renovation was Weinstein’s re-purposing of the former church at 6000 Wayne Ave. to become the Waldorf School.
But it was SEPTA’s $31.5 million investment in its Wayne Junction Train Station (Chestnut Hill East Line) in 2015 that recalibrated Weinstein’s focus. It’s no small coincidence that the Station was originally designed by Furness. SEPTA’s upgrading of one of its busiest transportation hubs, serving 321,000 passengers annually, signaled positive change. Situated on Germantown’s southern border, the neighborhood was rife with abandoned factories, poverty and crime. Weinstein saw something else. He saw opportunity.
“Eight of the abandoned factories are historically significant,” said Weinstein. “I bought six of them, including the Max Levy Autograph Company, where we are getting closer to breaking ground for 32 apartments.” The Beaux Arts building at 212 Roberts St. was built in 1902 and is thought to be one of the first properties in the nation built with reinforced concrete.
One of the first buildings to be re-purposed was a former Catholic school at 4811 Germantown Ave. A $4 million restoration converted it into the Wayne Junction Campus, an office space for 14 businesses. Other historic properties being developed in Wayne Junction by Weinstein include the former Cunningham Piano Factory, a stunning Gothic Revival building with arched windows at 5423 Germantown Ave.
“We are converting the former piano factory into 16 apartments and two storefronts,” said Weinstein. (The Cunningham Piano Company maintains their restoration facility at 26 E. Coulter St.) Before it was a piano factory, it was Germantown Masonic Hall, built in 1883.
While most developers run from the constraints associated with historically designated properties, Weinstein embraces them, which is why he has received four Preservation Alliance Community Awards for adaptive reuse projects. By turning long-vacant factories into apartments, restaurants, retail and office space, Weinstein seeks to restore community pride and safety. Winning the support of residents is a balancing act. Some fear gentrification will price them out of the neighborhood where they have lived all their lives. “We work closely with the community, and the majority support our efforts,” said Weinstein, whose motto is “Doing well by doing good.”
A major sign of Philly Office Retail’s commitment to Wayne Junction is moving its headquarters to 4701 Germantown Ave. in the former Schaeffer School, built in 1876. Nearby are Philly Office Retail’s newest tenants: Attic Brewing, Deke’s BarBQ and Four Front digital marketing at 137 W. Berkley Street. Plus, Philly Bread Company and Philadelphia Woodworking Company at 4530 Germantown Ave.
If you think Weinstein and his pioneering tenants are overly optimistic about Wayne Junction’s future, just remember that’s what they used to say about early investors in Kensington and Fishtown redevelopment. So, the next time you ride the Chestnut Hill East Train into the city, take note of Wayne Junction. It’s where good things are happening. Fast.
For more information, visit phillyofficeretail.com