Letter: Let's stop backroom dealing on land development

The Germantown YMCA represents a shift in city politics

Posted 12/9/21

In October 2021, a few volunteers in Germantown initiated a Call to Action by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (“PRA”) to do what it had not done in the past six years…maybe not ever in its history!  We called on the PRA to act counter to the politics that has governed the disposition of publicly-owned property in the City. 

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Letter: Let's stop backroom dealing on land development

The Germantown YMCA represents a shift in city politics

Posted

In October 2021, a few volunteers in Germantown initiated a Call to Action by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (“PRA”) to do what it had not done in the past six years…maybe not ever in its history!  We called on the PRA to act counter to the politics that has governed the disposition of publicly-owned property in the City.  Specifically, we urged the PRA to use its authority to withdraw its award for the redevelopment of the Germantown YWCA building at 5820  Germantown Avenue. We said, “The PRA should do its job, and we would rally the community to handle the politics.”

In 2015, the PRA awarded the right to develop the building to an entity known as Keith B. Key Enterprises (KBK), an out of town developer. Over the past 6 years, KBK has failed to meet the development  requirements to have the PRA approve a  transfer of title to the Building. On October 28, because of our activism, the PRA issued a Notice of Default to KBK, giving it thirty (30) days to comply with PRA requirements.  On December 1, KBK was declared to be in default and no longer eligible as the redeveloper of the Building.

The YWCA building has a long, storied history of neglect by the City and the PRA, but the recent history that prompts this letter is a clear example of the political control over disposition of publicly-owned land that allows secret and backroom dealing by District Council members.  Via City Councilmanic prerogative, a District Council member  has the power to transfer public land because only a District Council member (by unwritten rule) may introduce the Ordinance required for such a transfer.  And what a District Council member wants, a District Council always gets through the power (the “prerogative”) granted by all the other District Council members.  All members will always vote in favor of any ordinance by a  District Council member that concerns land development within that District Council member’s district.  It’s “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours,” a practice that for years has caused delays, encouraged Pay-to-Play by developers, and dissipated the Mayor’s governing power. 

Councilmanic prerogative has caused blight and unfair dealings on many large publicly-owned properties.  To name a few in Germantown - Town Hall, the Wissahickon Playground, the old Wyneva Hotel site, and the Germantown YWCA building, with the YWCA building as the best example.

Sitting majestically adjacent to Vernon Park, a 2-acre park in the central core of Germantown, the YWCA building has been owned by the PRA since 2012 when it foreclosed against Germantown Settlement for its  failure to pay the mortgage on a PRA loan of over a million dollars.  In 2015, the PRA asked for community support of a development proposal that would involve Ken Weinstein, Mission First, and Center in the Park as partners in developing the Building as an affordable senior housing facility.  Center in the Park is a senior services facility that operates  adjacent to the Building,  Mission Housing has a stellar reputation as a developer of affordable housing.  Ken Weinstein has a stellar reputation for adaptive reuse of old buildings, with The Waldorf  School on Wayne Avenue as a prime example. 

At a community meeting, the Mission First/Weinstein plan was approved overwhelmingly by the more than 200 people present.  But District Councilwoman Cindy Bass objected to and killed the PRA’s selection of the community-approved proposal, stating that “Germantown does not need more low income housing; it needs market rate housing.”  Bass chose KBK as the developer. 

After six years, and with a two-month campaign that collected almost 1200 signatures on a petition and hundreds of emails to Mayor Kenney, Germantown is expressing a resolve to stop the backroom dealing on land disposition.  The PRA acted to give a win to Germantown.  A community meeting, scheduled for December 7, will take on the next step of community involvement in the disposition of public land.  Quoting a Hidden City reporter in 2015, “Germantown’s the only neighborhood in Philly where 250 people would show up to a meeting to talk about a building.”  I think he’s right.

Yvonne B. Haskins, Esquire

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