Twenty months ago, Holy Family University officials posted a six-minute video to YouTube depicting a grand vision for the former Liddonfield public housing project. To date, nary a shovel of dirt has been turned on the barren, 33-acre, publicly owned tract at Torresdale Avenue and Megargee Street.
Yet, the so-called Holy Family Liddonfield Expansion is not dead, according to City Councilman Bobby Henon, although a June 30 deadline passed without consummation of a land sale from the Philadelphia Housing Authority to a team of private developers led by Bensalem-based BSI Construction.
Speaking exclusively with the Northeast Times on Monday, Henon said a deal is in the works to bring housing for senior citizens, health-care offices and university athletic fields to the Liddonfield site in keeping with terms originally outlined by PHA and approved by residents of the Upper Holmesburg community. In the meantime, the developers have asked PHA for a 30-day extension to finalize the deal.
“I wasn’t going to let this deal fall apart. It’s incumbent upon me to ensure that the best option for the community is realized,” said Henon, who described himself as an intermediary among PHA, the developers and Holy Family. “I am optimistic there is still a bright future for the Liddonfield site.”
That future may look quite different than the developers’ own original conceptual drawings, as well as that six-minute video of similar three-dimensional renderings posted by Holy Family officials to YouTube 20 months ago. Developers first showed the drawings publicly during a meeting of the Upper Holmesburg Civic Association in early 2012. The civic group voted in favor of the plan, which included four university athletic fields, senior citizen housing, university housing and retail shops.
With the support of the community and Holy Family, the developers in July 2012 won a bidding process for the right to purchase the land from PHA. As part of the contract, the developers agreed to pay $4.2 million to the housing agency, establish 20 acres of open space and award more than $1 million in college scholarships to PHA resident-students. Holy Family agreed to supply the scholarships, although the university was never a direct party to the land sale. In exchange for its contribution, Holy Family was to benefit as the end user of the NCAA-caliber athletic fields, which also would satisfy the contract’s open-space requirement.
Even as Holy Family officials attempted to distance the university from direct association with the land sale, someone from the university posted a video to the “HolyFamilyAthletics” channel on YouTube in November 2012. The promotional film features a title screen identifying the project as the “Holy Family University Liddonfield Expansion.” It highlights detailed sketches of “campus housing,” “assisted living,” a “baseball stadium,” a “softball stadium,” a soccer field and a lacrosse field for the site.
The video further highlights additional university expansion to a property directly across Torresdale Avenue from the Liddonfield site. The former construction materials recycling plant is reportedly owned by principals in BSI Construction. The video outlines plans for a field house, a student union, a business school and an “incubator” building there. Asked on Monday for comment on the Liddonfield project, a BSI representative referred all questions to Henon.
A university spokesman on Monday issued a prepared statement regarding the project: “Holy Family University has always been an independent third party. We are currently waiting for negotiations to be completed between the Philadelphia Housing Authority and [the] real estate developer. As always, Holy Family University remains committed to our students and our neighbors, and we expect the outcome of these negotiations will serve the best interests of our community.”
It appears as if start-up money has been one issue holding up the land transfer and construction. Last March, Sister Francesca Onley, then the university president, told the Times, “The funding has not come forth yet” for the project. “We do not have funding now. We do need federal or state funding.”
Onley said that when developers approached the university in 2012 to propose the project, she was told that Holy Family would not have to provide cash for the land acquisition and that the developers would build the athletic fields with revenue from the senior citizen housing component of the project.
Henon acknowledged that much of the discussion since then has concerned how much revenue-generating housing is needed to offset the cost of building athletic facilities, which may be reduced in scope from the original plan.
Recently, he said, a reputable company specializing in senior housing has partnered with the developers. The latest proposal is to build an unspecified number of single-bedroom apartments or condominium-style units for independent living. There would be a senior center on-site, as well as health care facilities such as a pharmacy and therapy centers. It is unclear if the residences would be restricted to low-income seniors, but it would have a catchment area of surrounding neighborhoods, Henon said.
“There’s a new partner that can develop senior housing that fits the needs of the community, the wants of the community and fits the conditions of the [PHA contract], so nothing has changed drastically.” ••