Vacant Front Street banks’ fate in judge’s hands

A pro­pos­al to de­mol­ish his­tor­ic banks at Front and Nor­ris streets and build low-in­come hous­ing is be­ing fought in court by two Kens­ing­ton wo­men who think the pro­ject is bad news.

Two Kens­ing­ton wo­men are await­ing a judge’s de­cision next week on wheth­er to up­hold vari­ances to de­mol­ish va­cant banks at Front and Nor­ris streets, in or­der to con­struct a res­id­en­tial build­ing.

“Dens­ity-wise, I don’t need to be a city plan­ner to know that it makes no sense,” said Kar­en Lewis, a res­id­ent of Hope Street in Kens­ing­ton, of the 25-unit res­id­ence that was pro­posed in March 2012 for 1942-58 N. Front St.

Lewis, along with Car­men Bolden, her co-plaintiff, ap­pealed last year the Zon­ing Board of Ad­just­ment’s de­cision to grant the needed vari­ances to de­mol­ish the banks.

The site, cur­rently oc­cu­pied by two boarded-up former banks, In­dus­tri­al Trust, Title & Sav­ings and Ninth Na­tion­al Bank, is owned by the Wo­men’s Com­munity Re­vital­iz­a­tion Pro­ject (WCRP).

But even if the judge up­holds the vari­ances needed to de­mol­ish the ex­ist­ing struc­tures, there’s no guar­an­tee the pro­ject, known as the Nitza Tufino Town­homes, would go for­ward.

“There is noth­ing that is cer­tain in this life,” said Nora Lichtash, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of WCRP, when asked about the status of the pro­ject.

“The money is still there,” Lichtash said. “[But] we’re still try­ing to fig­ure things out. We’re not in a place where we can say what’s go­ing to hap­pen, be­cause noth­ing is cer­tain.”

Lichtash re­fused to an­swer fur­ther ques­tions and did not re­spond to email re­quests for cla­ri­fic­a­tion. An­oth­er WCRP em­ploy­ee also de­clined to com­ment.

“No way do we want 25 units in that small space,” said Bolden, also a res­id­ent of Hope Street.

Star pre­vi­ously re­por­ted that 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.

At a May 9, 2012 com­munity meet­ing, many loc­als poin­ted out that with two bars, a meth­adone clin­ic, and wide­spread drug deal­ing and pros­ti­tu­tion near the site, it was not ideal for fam­il­ies.

Ac­cord­ing to WCRP’s web site, they primar­ily provide hous­ing to low-in­come wo­men with chil­dren.

Lewis said that the gen­er­al at­mo­sphere of pres­sure to sup­port the hous­ing pro­ject on the part of mem­bers of the Nor­ris Square Civic As­so­ci­ation and WCRP rep­res­ent­at­ives caused her and her neigh­bors to break off and form their own re­gistered com­munity or­gan­iz­a­tion, Hope for Bet­ter Liv­ing Neigh­bors As­so­ci­ation.

Lewis’s car tires were slashed, her car was stolen, and she was verbally threatened in front of her chil­dren after mak­ing her op­pos­i­tion to the pro­ject known, she said.

“The ma­jor­ity of the people that live on my block are low-in­come wo­men with chil­dren, my­self as one of them, and it’s some­where I would not want to be crammed in­to … es­pe­cially when there’s so many va­cant lots around,” Lewis said of the pro­ject.

Oth­er people op­posed the pro­ject on his­tor­ic pre­ser­va­tion grounds. The banks were in­cluded by Lo­gan Fer­guson of Powers & Co, a his­tor­ic pre­ser­va­tion con­sult­ing group, in a list of po­ten­tial Kens­ing­ton tex­tile-in­dustry re­lated land­marks.

The Nor­ris Square Civic As­so­ci­ation, the Fishtown Neigh­bors As­so­ci­ation, and the East Kens­ing­ton Neigh­bors As­so­ci­ation voted at the May 9, 2012 meet­ing on vari­ances for the Nitza Tufino Town­homes, in­clud­ing rezon­ing that sec­tion of Front Street from com­mer­cial to res­id­en­tial. Each group’s bor­ders in­clude the corner at Front and Nor­ris streets.

The res­id­ents at­tend­ing voted 60-21 against the pro­ject.

But at the ac­tu­al ZBA hear­ing in Au­gust 2012, the WCRP presen­ted 280 pe­ti­tion sig­na­tures in fa­vor of the pro­ject.

Re­port­er Sam Ne­w­house can be reached at 215-354-3124 or at sne­w­

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