The Germantown YWCA was one of the first racially integrated Ys in the country. It has variously served as an after-school safe haven, a social services center, and a hub for civil rights activists until it closed its doors in the early 2000s.

In the years since, the landmark unattended building attracted arsonists and vandals and at one point was headed for demolition after the city deemed it an imminent danger — until neighbors rallied to save it and spark new redevelopment efforts.

Now, after 15 years of delays, three false starts, and millions of taxpayer dollars, it’s become something else: the latest example of the city’s struggles to preserve historic buildings and to bolster Black- and brown-owned development firms, as well as the endless debate over how much influence City Council members should have over property decisions in their districts.

The dustup started when the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority revoked its contract with KBK Enterprises, the Ohio-based, Black-owned real estate company it hired in 2016 to restore the building, saying the company couldn’t prove it could finance the project nearly six years after it won the redevelopment bid.

The decision led to acrimony in Germantown between supporters of the company, led by Councilmember Cindy Bass, and activists who had grown frustrated with the firm’s failure to begin work on the site. The discord peaked last month in a stormy public meeting at which the activists said they were bullied and physically intimidated by allies of the Council member. Bass denies being involved with the people who were accused of aggressive tactics.

Now the agency is starting over with a new request for proposals to redevelop the century-old landmark on Vernon Park.

The conflict reached its peak at an informal Dec. 7 public meeting held by the Friends for the Restoration of the Germantown YWCA Building. The purpose was to get residents’ input on the site’s future, following the decision late last year to cut ties with KBK, which had promised to finish the restoration by 2019.

At the meeting, Bass insisted on sitting on stage and speaking in defense of KBK — a political backer of hers — despite the organizers asking her not to. She claimed the Redevelopment Authority had discriminated against KBK because it is Black-owned firm, making the company jump through hoops for years.

“When I arrived at the meeting, I was told I was not to speak or sit on the stage. It was almost as if I was disinvited,” Bass said. She was there, she said, on behalf of “Black and brown folks who want to do business around construction in the city of Philadelphia and who have been systematically excluded by the city itself.”

As captured on a video feed available on Facebook, a leader of the friends group spoke after Bass. At that point, a handful of people — some wearing jackets labeled with the name of a neighborhood group, the Leverage Commission — began shouting. Another organizer of the event, Bernard M. Lambert, became agitated that they were disrupting the meeting and yelled back.

“I said out loud, ‘Well, if you’re here with Cindy, you have to leave,’ and it was frustration, me using Cindy’s name,” Lambert said in an interview.

The hecklers then got up and crowded around Lambert, who said he felt intimidated.

Robert Kirby was one of the men who circled Lambert. Kirby had coached a basketball team for years in the gym of the church where the meeting was held, he said in an interview, and he was offended by the notion that he could be kicked out of a place he long considered home.

“They can put up their little distractions — ‘I got stepped to,’ and this and that,” Kirby said. “But when you say it to the wrong people, there’s going to be circumstances. And yeah, he got stepped to because he told us to get out.”

Kirby is a cofounder of the Leverage Commission, which he said provides services like job training to youth in Northwest Philadelphia. He is also the vice president of Imperial Constructors LLC, a construction firm where he and at least one of other member of the Leverage Commission work.

Kirby said his firm would work as a subcontractor on the Germantown Y project — “if invited.” His goal in defending KBK was not to promote a potential partner, he said, but to speak out against discrimination against minority-owned construction firms.

“As far as Imperial, we weren’t promised anything. We just happen to be contractors,” Kirby said. “But we’re the Leverage Commission, and this was an issue that, as the Leverage Commission, we had to take a stand on this issue.”

Bass said Tuesday that she did not invite the Leverage Commission to the meeting. But Kirby said that “somebody from her office sent us the flier.”

In a separate incident after the meeting, Lambert said three men who were not wearing the Leverage Commission jackets approached and threatened him.

“They said, ‘We live here, this is our neighborhood, and I suggest you not go against Cindy or us again,’” Lambert recounted. “I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. … It was very unsettling.”

The friends group has asked City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart’s office to investigate Bass’ role in the controversy, as first reported by Chestnut Hill Local. The controller’s office declined to say whether it had opened a probe into the spat.

Arson, vandals, false hopes

The Germantown YWCA sits at 5820 Germantown Ave., two blocks from the Chelten Avenue business district.

Years after it was closed, the social services agency Germantown Settlement in 2006 bought the site from the city with plans to make it vibrant again. Four years later, the group found itself embroiled in a financial scandal and filed for bankruptcy.

But when the building seemed destined for demolition, neighbors rallied to save it.

At Bass’ direction, the city spent $2.5 million to stabilize and seal the building. The Redevelopment Authority solicited bids for the site, but there was only one applicant: Developer Ken Weinstein and the nonprofit Mission First Housing proposed housing for low-income seniors.

But the deal would require Council approval. Bass, who has a history of clashing with Weinstein, was able to torpedo his proposal thanks to councilmanic prerogative, through which all Council members defer such decisions to lawmakers who represents an area. “I don’t like the idea of low-income senior housing on a commercial corridor that we’re working hard to revitalize,” Bass said at the time.

When the Redevelopment Authority again put the project out for bid, a second applicant emerged: KBK, named after its owner Keith B. Key.

KBK runs real estate operations in Columbus, Ohio, and Pittsburgh. While the Germantown restoration marked its first Philadelphia venture, its proposal to convert the decrepit building into two dozen apartments with ground-floor commercial space was a hit in the community.

“I really feel that this project with KBK Enterprises is ... the beginning of some more significant capital investment that we will see in this area,” Emaleigh Doley, commercial corridor manager at Germantown United Community Development Corp., told The Inquirer in 2017.

In the end, KBK’s slogan — “We get it done” — would not prove true in Germantown.

The project languished for years, and the building remains vacant, drawing tickets for trash and weeds outside in the last two years, according to city records.

In the years since winning the bid, the company has been generous to its primary backer in City Hall. Campaign finance records show KBK contributed $2,500 to Bass’ political campaign in 2018, followed by matching $3,000 contributions from Key and his wife, Donica Key, in 2019, totaling $8,500 over two years.

KBK declined to comment for this story.

With a growing sense of abandonment, neighbors became impatient as the years dragged on, and last year asked the Redevelopment Authority to seek a new developer. The authority gave the developer a month to show proof of a plan, but ultimately it did not “provide evidence of committed funding” to cover the redevelopment, PRA spokesperson Jamila Davis said.

Weinstein, the developer whose initial bid was torpedoed, said he would be open to resubmitting his application to build senior housing.

”I think the community has shown they want this property developed so the blight doesn’t continue,” Weinstein said.