Leaders of the Upper Holmesburg Civic Association have shed new light on behind-the-scenes negotiations involving the redevelopment of the former Liddonfield Homes public housing project.
Speaking at the UHCA’s monthly meeting on April 17, President Stan Cywinski and Zoning Chairman Paul DeFinis revealed that the civic group’s own demand for a detailed redevelopment plan is one reason that the first shovel has yet to touch the ground. Also, the Philadelphia Housing Authority and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development have extended the deadline for the developers to finalize their purchase of the 32-acre Liddonfield site at Torresdale Avenue and Megargee Street.
“By June 30, there has to be a name on the [sale] contract,” Cywinski said.
DeFinis, Cywinski and City Councilman Bobby Henon recently discussed progress with John Parsons, a principal in BSI Construction, a company chosen by PHA to redevelop the site in partnership with other firms.
Based on that meeting, the Upper Holmesburg leaders believe that the developers continue to negotiate with Holy Family University over the school’s lease-purchase agreement with the developers.
The conceptual plan calls for BSI and its partners to build athletic fields on a portion of the property that Holy Family would ultimately acquire, although the university is not a party in the PHA sale. In addition, the conceptual plan calls for the construction of privately owned university housing and retail shops along Torresdale Avenue as well as senior housing at the rear of the property along Cottage Street.
With support from the civic association, PHA approved that plan in granting development rights to the BSI-led partnership in July 2012. So, PHA has agreed to sell the land to Parsons’ partnership, but the deal also requires HUD approval. When the developers sought a formal letter of support from the civic group, the UHCA leaders demanded to see a detailed plan for the project. That is, they wanted to know the specific sizes and configurations of the various components.
According to DeFinis, the original conceptual drawing showed about 60 senior apartment units along Cottage Street, but the developers now are seeking to increase that figure — which would likely increase revenue generated by the project. BSI officials have not commented publicly on the issue.
“We have agreed to sixty senior housing units,” DeFinis said. “That number is probably going up. Is sixty enough [to close the deal]? Probably not. … They’re talking about possibly building more units and we’ll have to approve that.”
Meanwhile, the terms of the developers’ agreement with Holy Family are also being discussed, the civic leaders said. Sister Francesca Onley, the university president, has told the Northeast Times that the school did not agree to fund the purchase of the ground. That’s the responsibility of the developers, she said. As part of the plan approved by PHA, however, the school would grant academic scholarships to low-income PHA residents.
While Holy Family ultimately would own the athletic fields, the community would also have some access to them under the plan endorsed by the civic association. The facilities could include baseball and softball diamonds, as well as fields for soccer and other sports, according to the conceptual design.
What might happen if the parties fail to reach a consensus by the deadline remains a matter of speculation and fear among neighbors, who long suffered many public nuisances in the decades that the property served as public housing. PHA could re-bid the property to a developer intent on building new public housing.
Yet, the current developer also has a vested interest in making the project happen, according to Cywinski.
“You’re looking at a big contract, and they want to make sure they’re getting everything they can get,” Cywinski said. “They’ve already spent a lot on this.”
In other civic association business, residents heard from two candidates who are running for the open 173rd district seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. DeFinis, the UHCA zoning chairman, and local businessman Mike Driscoll are vying for the seat that will open when Mike McGeehan retires in January.
Driscoll and DeFinis are Democrats. The winner of the party primary on May 20 is expected to win the general election handily.
Driscoll is a Torresdale resident who grew up in Oxford Circle. He served in the administration of former Gov. Bob Casey, is former director of the Mayfair CDC and is a founding partner of Ashburner Inn on Torresdale Avenue as well as Finnigan’s Wake on Spring Garden Street. He also works in the banking industry.
“I have a vested interest in Upper Holmesburg,” Driscoll said. “I want to get back into public service. I have experience starting small businesses and putting people back to work.”
DeFinis also is a local businessman. He owns DeFinis State Auto Body on Torresdale Avenue as well as a public adjusting firm. He has cited his experience advocating for consumers against the auto insurance industry in Harrisburg, as well as his years of work on the civic association, where he helps protect neighbors against unwanted development. DeFinis grew up in Torresdale and lives in Upper Holmesburg. ••