In January, all eyes were on the old YWCA at 5820 Germantown Avenue, bordering Vernon Park in Germantown. Despite a wealth of local affection for the building, whose use as a YWCA facility dates back to 1914, it may face demolition, and residents are anxiously asking what can be done to save it.
Despite its important place in the neighborhood's 20th century history, the building has been left to languish empty for years, damaged by vandalism and fires. The YMCA owned the building until 2006; then Germantown Settlement purchased the site, but no plans materialized. With the structure in steep decline, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority
(PRA) brought the building to sheriff’s sale and acquired it in 2013.
Last fall, a request for proposals for the site drew a plan from just one interested developer: the Philly-based Mission First Housing Group
, which would partner with Philly Office Retail
to convert the building into 50 independent senior-living units, pending a state-administered federal tax subsidy (Mission First would retain sole ownership of the site.) But the PRA rejected the proposal last month.
"This issue is something that’s really important to people, so it brings out a lot of passions," said Germantown United CDC
Board President Garlen Capita at a January 22 community meeting on the issue, held at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown.
The meeting drew a large crowd of concerned locals, and featured PRA Executive Director Brian Abernathy, Mission First Housing Group Director of Business Development Mark Deitcher, 8th District Councilwoman Cindy Bass
and Philly Office Retail president Ken Weinstein as speakers.
By all counts, the condition of the building now means that it will cost more money to rehabilitate and re-use than it would to demolish and rebuild. Abernathy estimated the cost of stabilizing the structure at $3 million, and according to Deitcher, a Mission First assessment found that the 50,000-square-foot facility would cost $200 per square foot to restore.
Several speakers, including Bass and community members who took the microphone for a question-and-answer session, emphasized the importance of not rushing to take the first proposal to materialize for the site.
But Weinstein came out strongly in support of the Mission First proposal: "This project does not represent settling for what’s in front of us," he insisted.
For her part, the Councilwoman said two other developers had approached her with interest in the site after word of its possible demolition got out, but she declined to give any specifics.
GUCDC Executive Director Andy Trackman tells Flying Kite
that they're still awaiting word on next steps for the old YWCA: nothing can move forward until the city’s Office of Licenses and Inspections surveys the site and makes its report.
Elliot Griffin, a spokesperson for Bass, says the councilwoman has scheduled meetings with stakeholders from City agencies about the structural soundness of the building.
So, when can the community expect the critical L&I report? Griffin can’t comment on the timing of a public announcement, but confirms that Bass expects to hear from L&I soon.
Community activist and W. Rockland Street Project
leader Emaleigh Doley, who also spoke up at last month’s meeting, tells Flying Kite
that the lack of discussion about the site prior to the news of its possible demolition bothered her.
"There should be conversation, but the manner in which this issue was raised exploited the threat of demolition…and takes full advantage of the neighborhood’s vulnerabilities," she says. "Even after leaving the meeting, I was left asking, what is really going on here?"
Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Sources: Andy Trackman, GUCDC; Elliot Griffin, Councilwoman Cindy Bass; Emaleigh Doley, W. Rockland Street Project