PRA chief testifies against appointing G-town Y conservator

by Richard L. Stein
Posted 5/31/24

About 30 neighbors of the now-defunct Germantown YWCA trekked to City Hall last Thursday to support local developer Ken Weinstein in his quest to be named conservator.

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PRA chief testifies against appointing G-town Y conservator


About 30 some odd neighbors of the now-defunct Germantown YWCA trekked to Courtroom 453 at City Hall last Thursday to support local developer Ken Weinstein in his quest to be named conservator of the long vacant building at 5820-24 Germantown Ave.

If they were hoping for a quick ruling on the case from Common Pleas Court Judge Ann Butchart, they left disappointed. Although, by now, they are surely used to waiting. They've been hearing promises that the historic four-story building – now owned by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Agency – would be converted to much-needed affordable senior housing for nearly two decades.

They'll have to wait at least until September, when additional witnesses will be called to testify.

Weinstein, who owns most of the property north of the building, is suing to take control of the Y 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.

At a hearing in March, his witnesses described loose bricks, water damage, overgrown weeds, broken glass, trash, and used needles at a site where children have been seen playing mid the debris.

Thursday's only witness, PRA President David Thomas – who is also the head of the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation – told a very different story. He testified that his agency had acquired the property in 2013 from a previous owner who was "not responsible."

He said the owner (the now-bankrupt nonprofit Germantown Settlement) had "failed to deliver on promises to renovate" and had allowed the property to fall into disrepair. Vagrants had started a fire that destroyed much of the building's interior.

"If we had not taken steps to deal with structural challenges as a result of the fire, the building would have faced demolition," he said, adding that his agency had "spent $1.5 million to secure the building."

The PRA's defense appears to be that mere vacancy is not enough to declare a building blighted. Under direct examination by the PRA's attorney, Thomas described his agency's efforts to maintain the property, insisting that "we have a crew that goes out there monthly."

A murmur of discontent went through the otherwise silent attendees when Thomas said his agency had engaged with the community and had never been cited for failure to protect the property or received complaints about vermin at the site. He insisted that, before suing, Weinstein had not expressed concerns about safety and that there had been no reports of injuries or criminal activity.

Barely mentioned at the hearing were City Councilmember Cindy Bass and developer Keith B. Key. Despite the lack of movement on the project, Bass continues to staunchly defend Key, an Ohioan whose Black-owned development company was awarded the right to develop the Y in 2016 by the PRA.

Key has yet to secure financing for the project, let alone start construction. 

Thomas endeavored to explain. Typically, he said, a development awarded as a tax credit project takes about three years to obtain financing because developers must accumulate subsidies for affordable housing and need to have property rights before applying for credits. "There is often a multitude of sources, such as the Federal Home Loan Bank and city and state entities," he added. The city of Philadelphia has pledged $3 million towards the estimated $18 million cost of renovation.

Under cross examination by Weinstein's attorney, Thomas insisted that concerns raised about the building were not about safety. Instead, numerous Zoom meetings revolved around the pace (or lack thereof) of construction.

Indeed, the attorney elicited testimony about how the PRA had revoked KBK's development rights because of its slow pace, only to be reinstated after an "unsolicited proposal" backed by Bass, who had asserted that the revocation was racially motivated. Thomas, who heads the agency, is Black.

As for the testimony about safety concerns at the March hearing, "I commissioned the workers to address the safety concerns that were raised at the last hearing: extending the fence, removing debris, adding no trespassing signs," he said.

Renee Cunningham, executive director of the Center in the Park senior center, was among the group who had come to observe the proceedings. She had testified about the condition of the building at the March hearing and she acknowledged that, since then, the PRA had sent crews to clean up around the building. 

But, she added, "Many of the people who came out today are residents of Maple Village, which also adjoins the Y property. They came to support affordable housing with a developer who'll get the funding and work with CIP and Maple Village. There's lots of development in Germantown right now — none of it is affordable. Rents are $1,600 a month."

Lynn Fields Harris, her predecessor at CIP and now president of Commonwealth Consultants, Inc., echoed her words. She recalled working "to repurpose the building with an eye to affordable senior housing." At that time, "we worked with Ken Weinstein."

She claimed that his proposal was rejected because "the councilmember wanted a different developer. At first," she recalled, "Key was willing to meet with the community. Then he went into radio silence. The politics of it all hasn't considered what the benefits to the community would be."

After the hearing, Thomas firmly stated "Our concern is preserving affordability. I believe the developer has the capability of following through on this project. I have seen his work elsewhere. He is still interested in getting this done and has met with the community recently. Those meetings went well. People didn't oppose this developer. Their concerns were with the pace of development."

Attorneys for the PRA are expected to call two final witnesses on the afternoon of Sept. 12, Angel Rodriguez, senior vice president of the PHDC and Joe Zuzzardi, the agency's maintenance director.