2016-01-07_08-55-44

It’s bland.  It’s cold.  It’s dreary.  Just like your marriage will be.

The Fishtown Neighbors Association has a zoning teed-up for this dead hulk of a PECO power station next to Penn Treaty Park.

In May 2015 proprietor Joe Volpe and his brand Cescaphe Event Group picked up the power plant for $3 million.   Developer Bart Blattstein was also mentioned last year in murmurings about the project to be in the mix.  We kinda hope Blattstein is still in there somewhere, since he hasn’t been doing all that much since his hopes and dreams of a casino in the old Inquirer Building went down the shitter.

According to a post by FNA, the intended use of the property shall be:

Proposal to reuse the existing PECO power plant for an events hall with 3 ballrooms, corporate headquarters, Floral services, (2) restaurants, 80 hotel rooms, 430 parking spaces, and a riverfront trail.

80 hotel rooms.  Sounds like you can have some really gigantic weddings in this jawn.

So far a refusal has not been issued by the Department of Licenses and Inspections for either of the two PECO properties:  1325 and 1325R Beach Street.

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Would you believe it?  A major policy of former mayor John Street is being picked up and will be put into action in Baltimore, the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative.  The Baltimore Sun says it all

Calling Baltimore’s abandoned rowhouses “hotbeds for crime,” Gov. Larry Hogan on Tuesday announced a nearly $700 million plan to tear down thousands of vacant buildings and replace them with new developments — a level of investment in Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods some say is unprecedented.

NTI was a $300MM program put in place under the former mayor to demolish the hood.  Scores of homes were leveled in areas across the city with an eye towards blight reduction and crime rates; most NTI demolitions occurred in the western neighborhoods of North Philadelphia.  Towards the end of the program some of the money was drained to assist subsidized housing developments.

The key difference between Baltimore and Philly?  Who is paying for it and the size and the scope of the program.  Philadelphia paid for NTI by writing out massive amounts of bond debt.  With no dedicated revenue to back up the bond payments this severely limited the scale of the program because of the debt load that the city could handle.

In Baltimore we’re talking $700MM committment and it’s going to come from the state with Bmore mayor Rawlings-Blake pledging to toss in another $94MM.  Baltimore is quite a bit smaller than Philly and this has the potential to mow down not just a couple of blighted neighborhoods, but perhaps a half-dozen of them or more.

One of the neighborhoods targeted is Sandtown, where Freddie Grey lived.

Both initiatives have the same starting theory: mowing down crack and heroin dens should obviously reduce crime.  It offers fewer opportunity for wayward young kids to get into trouble.   At least, that’s how programs like this are sold to the public by officials to make the prospect of years of demolition palletable.

There’s certainly a downside, besides the debt.   Building trades contractors seriously overbilled the city for work performed.  The Redevelopment Authority which oversaw the demolitions had none other than John Dougherty running the agency–talk about a fox running the chicken coup.  When Ed Rendell was mayor he was able to knock down 10,000 homes with just $88MM; 6 years later with a much bigger budget it achieved an efficiency below 60% thanks to the overspending.

Four years into the program NTI transformed itself.  City Council, agencies and activists started to see NTI more as a honeypot to pay for all sorts of pet projects rather than follow Street’s original vision.  Street also didn’t propose a rigid structure for what purposes the money was to be used for.  This left the decisions to the whims of City Council.  Towards the end of the funding term last year almost $30MM remained unspent.

All-in-all, NTI is seen as a failure.   Demolitions were well underway when Philadelphia saw its homicide rate spike in the summer of 2006.  NTI also avoided confronting property speculators–those people who actively own blighted property and are far more interested in holding the deed.  Condemnation orders were slow to come or would not be issued at all. This resulted in some vacant and abandoned homes disappearing on city blocks but not other ones.  The program also didn’t focus on VLCIPs (Vacant and Large Commercial/Industrial Property).   Philadelphia is still littered with half-collapsed factory building blight which has never been touched.

Ultimately the largest failure of NTI was in its own namesake.  It wasn’t really a transformative program.   The policy which has boosted rehabs and new residential construction in blighted areas of Philly still remains the 10-year tax abatement program, a product of the Rendell Administration.  That policy too is controversial; some people would rather be happier with class and racial self-segregation  in its neighborhoods than see the gentrification that creates plural demographics and will only tolerate a demolition program so long as it keeps the deeds to condemned property out of the real estate market.

I can’t really say I want to congratulate Baltimore on this one.   We went down this road and it didn’t go well.  Maybe Maryland’s Republican governor who is paying for this and its Democratic mayor who is happy to accept the cash can figure out a better way to do it than we did.

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The inside of 1942-58 N Front St
The inside of 1942-58 N Front St

Several years ago Kensington and Fishtown were caught in a quagmire over a proposal by the Women’s Community Revitalization Project to demolish two bank buildings at the intersection of Front and Norris, near the Berks stop on the Market-Frankford Line, in order to build ultra-low income rental houses.

Neighbors on Hope Street, which is adjacent to this property, hastily formed a Registered Community Organization in response to the project in order to voice their objections over the lackluster design, which called for parking ramps on their no-parking street, the lack of ground floor commercial space as the property is zoned commercial, and that there was no intention to save what the neighborhood considers to be historic properties that are worth preservation, and indeed they are.

Well, the banks are going to see new life and will be saved from further decay.   A. Jordan Rushie, Esq., who represented neighbors who challenged the proposed project in Common Pleas court and prevailed, had this to say:

Today is a great day for East Kensington and Fishtown. I am pleased to announce that the historic banks on Front & Norris Streets are being rescued by Onion Flats, an internationally known design and development firm with offices nearby.

As some of you my recall, it was a long and hard fought legal battle. Initially the ZBA allowed a developer to tear down the historic banks for ultra low income housing. A group of neighbors and civic associations filed an appeal to the Court of Common Pleas. Isaac Slepner represented Jesse Gardner, who submitted an amicus brief on the historic value of the buildings. I represented the civic associations and neighbors, and briefed the legal arguments with respect to the zoning issues.

Two years ago we stood in Judge Ellen Ceisler’s courtroom and explained why these two historic textile banks should be saved and repurposed. Chris Somers provided expert testimony on their value, and Jesse Gardner informed the judge that he was ready to purchase the banks that day should they come on the market. The people prevailed, and the gavel came down in our favor.

This final development proves once again that “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Onion Flats, a development group on West Norris St. that has had extensive experience with historic redevelopment projects in the area will restore and redevelop the bank buildings.

Since the court decision, WCRP was able to find vacant land for their project nearby in the Somerset area of Kensington.

[Correction: Northeast corner]

The superblock at the Northeast corner of Washington Avenue and Broad Street is on Bart Blattstein‘s radar screen and this week was a public viewing for what appears to be a large (500-800 unit!) residential/retail complex that will finally fill in an ugly hole in the G-Ho/Point Breeze/Hawthorne/BV nexus.

SkyscraperPage has some details of the meeting.

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I’m sure no one has yet told Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze or Point Breeze Organizing Committee, the two main anti-gentrification groups in the vicinity about the massive tsunami of gentrification that is soon headed their way.  All we can say is:  we hope this is all by-right development.   The parcels within this city block are all currently zoned CMX-5, which is the only zoning category that permits dense skyscrapers by-right.

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