The surrounding area of Front and Norris streets in Kensington has seen its fair share of development over the years, for better or worse.
But is 1942 N. Front St., in the lot where a deteriorating former bank building now stands, the right place for three three-story town houses that low-income families can call home?
Many community members seem to think not.
In a decidedly heated zoning meeting at the Youth United for Change building at 1910 N. Front St. May 9, community members met with representatives for The Women’s Community Revitalization Project (WCRP)—the group that seeks to develop the homes—as well as representatives from the Norris Square Civic Association, the City Planning Commission and members of community groups like the East Kensington Neighbors Association.
After over an hour of argument over issues like parking, crime, the availability of safe outdoor space and even complex topics like gentrification, the assembly voted down the proposed project in a 60-to-21 vote against.
The WCRP’s mission is to provide permanent housing to very low-income families in the city. At 1942 N. Front St., the group would develop the Nitza Tufino Townhouses, three buildings containing 25 apartments, a community room and 10 parking spaces on Hope Street (directly behind where the bank building now stands).
In WCRP’s development synopsis for the project, it proposes that the homes “are a key to transforming this area into a mixed-income community of choice,” and that the lot’s close proximity to the Berks elevated train station is an amenity of convenience.
Some who attended the meeting, however, brought up many potential problems with the location and nature of the project.
Many said that residential space on the lot will not transform the area in a positive way, and WCRP should consider not just a community room on the first floor, but using the entire first floor as community or commercial space to promoto neighborhood safety.
“I would be a strong proponent of this project were it not for the residential uses on the first floor,” said Henry Pyatt, commercial corridor manager for NKCDC and member of the EKNA zoning committee. “When everybody lives on the first floor, they close their blinds, they don’t see the crimes…and the crimes keep happening,” he continued.
One attendee said, “The project is fine, but the location is awful.”
Several people at the meeting raised points about parking and safety.
One woman said that Hope Street, where WCRP proposed to add the townhouses’ 10 parking spaces, is already jammed with cars.
She went on to echo a concern raised by others in the meeting—that the area is not safe for families with children.
With two bars, a methadone clinic, and drug dealing and prostitution near the site, she said, if the developer had studied whether the area was suitable for women and children, “you would not have picked this area.”
Nora Lichtash, director of WCRP, said in a phone interview May 21 that WCRP chose the site because the organization believes it will benefit the community by turning a blighted site into something useful.
“We chose the project site because it’s close to public transit, and this is a transit-oriented development site,” she said.
Regarding parking, Lichtash said WCRP has spoken to the City Planning Commission about moving the parking from Hope Street, but as the proposed townhouses will be home to many tenants who take public transportation, there won’t be an overflow of parked cars crowding the streets.
Lichtash said that as far as using the entire first floor for commercial space, the idea isn’t feasible.
“Right now, there isn’t enough of a market for commercial use,” she said, “But [the townhouses] are going to help spur commercial development around there.”
She went on to say that although the entire first floor cannot be used commercially, the community room space can be used or rented out for meetings, parties, voting and other uses that do create the “eyes on the street,” that lead to safety.
Not to mention, she said, that people simply living there is better than the current situation.
“Right now it’s an empty building with room for illicit activity,” she said. “What it will be is families going in and out, and community space.”
Lichtash insists that WCRP is focused on the community’s concerns going forward. She said the organization has held community meetings to work through issues and nail down specifics of the project.
“If the question is if we’re listening to the community,” Lichtash said, “Then yes, we’re listening.”
To learn more about WCRP, visit http://www.wcrpphila.com.
Managing Editor Mikala Jamison can be reached at 215-354-3113 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.