The 2008 state law, Act 135, gives neighbors, businesses, and nonprofit organizations the right to ask a court to put the property in the hands of a conservator.
Developer Ken Weinstein has moved to take control of the historic Germantown YWCA away from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority under Act 135, a 2008 state law that gives neighbors, businesses, and nonprofit organizations the right to ask a court to put blighted property in the hands of a conservator.
In his Oct. 11 court filing, Weinstein asserts that the property meets all the legal requirements to be eligible for conservatorship.
“The owner has failed to take reasonable and necessary measures to remedy the [building’s] appearance and conditions,” the petition states, and it “has long represented a public nuisance to its neighbors and the community.”
The case is scheduled to be heard on Dec. 22 in the Court of Common Pleas.
The filing is a direct challenge to City Councilmember Cindy Bass. If he is successful, Weinstein would take control of the building away from Keith B. Key, the Columbus-based developer who has held the right to develop it since 2016 and is favored by Bass.
“Any way you look at it, this brings us hope, and I think it’s great,” said Yvonne Haskins, co-founder of Friends for the Restoration of the Germantown Y, a group of neighbors who have long sought to save the building. “It would be a blessing if he wins.”
Neither Key’s company, KBK Enterprises, nor Bass’ office immediately responded to the Local’s request for comment.
Weinstein owns several properties near the Germantown Y, including the empty lot next door, and a building that houses Wave Nutrition Philly, at 5836 Germantown Avenue, which is on the same block.
On Friday, Weinstein told the Local that if he is successful he would ask Mission First – a company with a successful track record for building affordable senior housing – to develop the property. He would not seek to develop it himself.
That decision would ultimately be up to the judge, who would hold the sole authority to approve development plans.
In the filing, Weinstein writes that his company could secure and stabilize the property within a reasonable amount of time for approximately $130,500, including repairing brickwork, securing part of the roof, scraping, repairing and painting trim on the windows and doors and clearing the grounds of weeds and vegetation.
If Weinstein’s company is appointed conservator, he writes, the company will need to conduct an interior inspection to determine the full scope of work needed.
“It appears the property is salvageable and capable of rehabilitation,” the petition says.
A long history of neglect
The building at 5820 Germantown Avenue, built in 1915, was sold by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority to the now-bankrupt non-profit Germantown Settlement in 2006 and has since been a poster child for blight.
In 2009, after Germantown Settlement failed to repay a $1.3 million loan the authority had awarded the nonprofit to turn the building into a community center, the PRA foreclosed.
Still, it sat vacant, and in 2012, vagrants started a fire that destroyed much of its historic interior.
Weinstein then applied to redevelop the property for affordable senior housing, but Bass objected. And in 2016, the PRA awarded KBK Enterprises, an Ohio-based development company the right to redevelop it.
That company has struggled to find funding ever since, and the building remains vacant.
Key met with neighbors in mid-October and said he is seeking city funding from the Neighborhood Preservation Initiative, a city fund meant to support affordable housing and commercial revitalization programs in the city of Philadelphia, and also through tax credits offered by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency.
At that meeting, Key said he hoped to have the funding in place by April or May of next year, and that construction would start in the fall of 2024 with a target completion in 2025. And Bass, whose office hosted that meeting, said “We're where we need to be. This is not the moment to switch gears.”
Key’s plans include 45 affordable residential units consisting of studios, one- and two-bedroom flats, and one- and two-bedroom lofts. They also include 10,000 square feet of commercial space on the ground floor and an additional 10,000 square feet of office space in the basement. Of the 45 affordable units, 22 would be offered at 60% of the area’s median income, 18 would be offered at 50% of the area’s median income and five would be offered at 20%.
Weinstein said he does not believe Key is any closer to being able to break ground.
“KBK did not hold that meeting because he had made any progress, that was a meeting that had been required by the city as a prerequisite for the funding he was asking for,” Weinstein said. “There was no new information, no new financing in place, no new permits obtained. He was essentially still at the starting line, after eight years of delay.”
Weinstein could not say whether Mission First would also need to seek city funds.
“We haven’t even been inside it for eight years, and we don’t know what condition it is in,” Weinstein said. “But I can say that if Mission First uses low-income tax credits, that would be a major part of the financing.”
The PRA attempted to end the contract with Key in 2021. Bass objected and refused to consider a new developer. In early October, the PRA confirmed it had given KBK an extension under the terms of a reservation letter to show that it had the funds to develop the building by Oct. 30.
But City Council would have to pass a resolution for the PRA to transfer the project rights to another developer. And Bass, who as a district councilmember has the power to block other developers from getting a contract for the property, has long supported KBK for the project – and blamed the company’s lack of progress on racial bias at the PRA.
The YWCA, a beloved community anchor in the neighborhood for more than a century, has a long and important history. It was the first in the city to integrate, and it's where countless children learned to swim. It hosted clubs and classes and sponsored neighborhood events, and at one point served as a hub for civil rights.