Judge hears plea to put Germantown Y in new hands

Activists say building has been empty too long

by Carla Robinson
Posted 4/3/24

Common Pleas Court Judge Ann Butchart heard testimony supporting developer  Ken Weinstein’s effort to take control.

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Judge hears plea to put Germantown Y in new hands

Activists say building has been empty too long


Last Tuesday, Common Pleas Court Judge Ann Butchart heard testimony supporting developer  Ken Weinstein’s effort to take control of the Germantown YWCA 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. 

The city-owned building has sat vacant and deteriorating since closing two decades ago. If Weinstein is successful, Keith B. Key, the Ohio-based developer who has held the right to develop it since 2016 and is favored by City Councilmember Cindy Bass, would lose control of the building. 

“It came through loud and clear that the community feels very strongly about this building, and wants it back in good use again,” Weinstein said after the hearing. “We’ve been waiting for this for more than 20 years and we shouldn’t have to wait any longer.”

Yvonne Haskins, who has been advocating for the restoration of the building for decades, told the court that “there is no way to overstate how much we care about this - and still nothing has been done. I can’t believe the city has gone so long without taking action.” 

The PRA selected KBK Enterprises to redevelop the historic building in 2016 and has since been blamed for the current lack of action. PRA Board Chair David Thomas was present at the hearing but declined to comment. 

KBK, a Black-owned development company, has missed multiple deadlines for starting the project and still has yet to secure financing. Key met with neighbors in mid-October and said he hoped to have the funding in place by this spring and that construction would start in the fall of 2024 with a target completion date in 2025. He has recently received a $3 million city grant but does not have the full $18 million his company woiuld need to complete the mixed-use redevelopment plan.

Bass did not respond to a request for comment. She has previously blamed KBK’s inaction on the PRA, stating that the organization gave him “a runaround” that was tinged with racial bias. She has also stated that she is “disappointed” that Weinstein is not backing KBK’s project.

While many community activists and proponents of redeveloping the building spoke in support of Weinstein’s petition, Cornelia Swinson, executive director of the Johnson House, questioned the move. She said she wants to see the building redeveloped but “has concerns” about using ACT 135 in the predominantly Black neighborhood.

Weinstein, who owns most of the property north of the building on that block, said he took the issue to court “as a last resort.”

“It was the only way we could think of to get this process moving. The community had tried just about everything – petitions, going to PRA meetings – nothing was working,” he said. “This is why ACT 135 exists – to bring commercial property owners to the table and force them to do the right thing. And it shouldn’t be necessary. The city should be representing our interests, and in this case, unfortunately, they are not.” 

Weistein also said that if he gains conservatorship of the building, he is not interested in developing it himself. 

“I believe that there are better entities – such as Mission First – that would do a better job of redeveloping it into low and moderate-income senior housing,” he said. 

Mission First, which is based in Philadelphia, is also a Black-owned development company.

A long history of neglect

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 activism.

The building at 5820 Germantown Avenue, built in 1915, was sold by the PRA to the now-bankrupt non-profit Germantown Settlement in 2006 - and has been a poster child for blight ever since. 

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 the building 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 the project to KBK Enterprises.

The PRA has since attempted to end the contract with Key. The redevelopment authority planned to release a new request for proposal in the summer of 2022, but never did. At that time, Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration said the agency couldn’t proceed without Bass’ cooperation.

Bass, who as a district council member has the power to block other developers from getting a contract for the property, blames the company’s lack of progress on racial bias at the PRA. She has also said the PRA falsely told the company the project required historical tax credits to be completed, and that the company never had proper access to the site. The authority disputes those claims.

Advocates speak

Those who spoke in support of Weinstein said the building needs immediate action – and they are tired of waiting. 

Architect Sam Olshin, a principal at Atkin Olshin Schade Architects, a firm specializing in preservation and adaptive reuse projects, said loose bricks and evidence of water damage suggest decades of neglect. 

Renée C. Cunningham, executive director of Center in the Park, a senior center next door to the Y, spoke of constantly having to cut back overgrown weeds, clean up glass, trash and used needles, and watching children moving around parts of the building that appeared to be dangerous.

“I’m afraid someone is going to get hurt,” she said.

Haskins, who has been working to restore the building and revitalize Germantown’s commercial corridor for decades, said she can’t understand why the PRA has not broken ties with KBK. When the PRA did not follow through on a previous attempt to terminate the agreement with the company last fall, "we felt that…was a betrayal,” she said. “We also knew that there was very little the PRA seemed to be able to do.”

The PRA, which is seeking to maintain control of the building, will present its arguments on May 23.