Bass blocks new developer for Germantown YWCA

by Carla Robinson
Posted 9/13/22

Plans for adaptive reuse of the Germantown YWCA have stalled, nine months after the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority said it would seek a new developer.

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Bass blocks new developer for Germantown YWCA


Nine months after the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority promised to seek a new developer for the long-vacant and historic Germantown YWCA building in the heart of the neighborhood's central business district, agency officials are now saying it can’t move forward because City Council member Cindy Bass would block the effort.

“We are still addressing the concerns raised by the Councilperson in the district and as such have not been able to proceed…The Administration has asked that the PRA work with the Councilperson to resolve concerns raised before proceeding,” PRA chairman David Thomas wrote about the status of the project in an email exchange with Yvonne Haskins, a concerned resident. “As you're aware, issuing an RFP (request for proposals) without the support of the district council would be futile for staff and a financial burden on respondents preparing proposals.”

In an email response to questions about the matter yesterday, Bass confirmed that she has told the PRA she is not ready to support a new RFP. She said she still wants her preferred developer, the Pittsburgh-based KBK Enterprises, to be given another chance at the property. 

“I've always indicated I was open to supporting new development proposals. However, this current one is still on the table and is still very much in dispute. I'd like to tie up those loose ends first,” she wrote. 

In early December of 2021, the PRA revoked the agreement it made with KBK back in 2016, because that developer had not moved forward on the project for six years, and was not able to “provide evidence of committed funding.” KBK has developed many projects in various states, but is not experienced in adaptive reuse. 

Members of a group called Friends for the Restoration of the Germantown YWCA Building, which has been fighting to save the building for the past eight years, are furious. They say Thomas had promised them that a new RFP would be issued by August.

“Needless to say, we were shocked and disappointed to learn inadvertently on August 29 that the PRA has not kept its promises to Germantown,” Yvonne Haskins, one leader of the group wrote in an email response to Thomas. 

The group is directly tied to the first Friends group which rallied to save the vandalized and fire-damaged 100 year-old building from demolition in 2015. They say that the building, located on Germantown Avenue at the corner of Vernon Park, is treasured by many who have fond memories of using it years ago. It is also key to the neighborhood’s economic revitalization, they say. 

“This is truly a slap in the face to us and the hundreds, if not thousands, of others who have been engaged in the campaign to preserve and repurpose the Germantown YWCA Building,” the group wrote in a press statement on the matter.

PRA spokeswoman Jamila Davis, in response to the Local, wrote in an email that “PRA did not state we are not issuing another RFP.” She did not say that the PRA will be issuing a new RFP.

“Given the condition and the importance of the property, it is important that the next steps we take result in an equitable redevelopment option that will benefit the community and that can move forward without undue delay. We are still assessing how best to get this done,” Davis wrote.

When the PRA revoked its agreement with KBK, Bass blamed the PRA for the project’s wasted six years, and said they gave owner Keith Key “a runaround” because he is a person of color. 

However, the Friends group, which has been holding workshops to gather community input about how to reuse the building, is also asking that Black developers be prioritized. They just want whoever it is to be from Philadelphia, and to have experience with adaptive reuse of historic properties. And they say they don’t understand why Bass would allow any developer to sit so long on such an important property, let alone support them. 

“After five years, we had grown weary waiting for work to start on a project that was to be completed by 2019! We were fed up looking at this vacant building for nearly two decades,” they wrote in their press statement. They also stated “an overwhelming preference for a local developer with experience repurposing historic buildings. A majority want consideration to go to Black developers, women and other Persons of Color.”

In a written response to the Local, Bass said  "My number one priority is to serve the interests of the 8th District residents. I am, therefore,  always willing to consider what they say they want in their own community."

Councilmanic prerogative

The friends group said the impasse is yet more proof of the damage that can be done by City Councils’ unwritten rule that allows district councilmembers to have the final say over what happens to publicly-owned properties in their districts, known as councilmanic prerogative. 

“We see this as another example of the harm and consequent blight caused by Councilmanic Prerogative,” they wrote. “”Here, it is clearly being used to thwart the community’s wishes.

“How can we have an honest and transparent discussion of competing visions for the project if we do not even invite development proposals to ground that discussion?” they continued “We appreciate the political reality surrounding the Councilmanic prerogative. Nevertheless, we are shocked to see the PRA interpret the prerogative in such an extreme way that you will not even issue an RFP without her blessing.”

PRA and the past

The group blamed the PRA for “shameful neglect” and “playing a less than responsible role” in their past management of the building, citing in particular their decision to lend  $1.3 million to Emmanuel Freeman’s now-bankrupt Germantown Settlement “despite red flags showing financial irregularities and huge debts.”

“When Settlement declared bankruptcy, not a single loan payment had been made,” they stated. “This debacle led to severe damage to the building which has already cost taxpayers millions for sealing and stabilization and it will be far more costly to redevelop.”

“It is wrong, even shameful, to cause citizen activists and volunteers to repeatedly struggle for what should be rights – the right to preserve our historic assets and treasures and the right to live in a neighborhood free of blight, the right to efficient and transparent interaction with City agencies and the right to have housing that meets the needs of current residents,” they wrote. “We call on the PRA and Board Chair Thomas to proceed immediately and issue the RFP as promised.”