A group of women who have lived in the Yorktown and Jefferson Manor neighborhoods for decades have long fought the encroachment of student housing in their small townhouse communities near Temple University.
And they’ve long protested the developers and landlords who have gutted what used to be single-family homes, and turned them into “rooming houses” for students.
Some fear their families will no longer be able to live there. Others say it’s made parking a real problem.
“We have people here who need home-care nurses to look after them,” Constance Taylor, a Yorktown resident. said last week. “But the nurses and aides can’t find a place to park.”
Now they are taking a stand against a proposed 320-unit apartment project by VBC Studio of Boston on what is now a large parking lot at 1600 N. 11th St., which stretches from Cecil B. Moore Avenue to Oxford Street and is next to Bright Hope Baptist Church.
“People are in an uproar about this,” said Paula Peebles, who lives in Jefferson Manor, and who is also the chair of the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Action Network.
“They are trying to build 320 barracks-style apartments right across from the church. We are going to talk about the impact this has on our homes.”
On Tuesday, the project goes before a Civic Design Review at the city Planning and Development Department, which will evaluate the design to see if it’s appropriate.
Peebles and others are also raising the question of whether there are environmental risks to building at the site and want the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate.
In a Nov. 19, letter to U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, Peebles and Yorktown resident Karen Warrington asked Boyle to seek an EPA investigation of whether there is “a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant on site.”
“The proposed project raises environmental justice issues,” said Faye M. Anderson, a public historian and preservationist who provided research to the community.
“Records show that since 1862, the land has been used for industrial purposes, including a brewery, industrial laundry, and auto repair business. These past uses strongly suggest environmental contamination with volatile organic compounds, lead, and asbestos.”
Sean Tobin, communications chief for Boyle, said that the congressman wrote to EPA officials about the matter on Nov. 23.
“I take such community concerns very seriously, so given the previous use of the site, and given the concerns expressed by my constituents, I would like to explore in greater detail what options exist through EPA to address the issues raised by these residents,” Boyle wrote in his letter to the EPA.
On Monday, Tobin wrote in an email that Boyle “is taking action within the scope of his federal office to help the Yorktown residents in their pursuit of environmental justice.”
Tobin says the congressman has not yet received a response from the EPA.
Michael Mattioni, a real-estate lawyer who will represent VBC Studio at Tuesday’s hearing, said on Monday: “All I know is that the developer has complied with all of the environmental issues. We’re in the process of seeking permits.”
Residents are upset that they were never told about community meetings about the VBC Studio project.
Tanya Miles, 61, has lived in Jefferson Manor for 51 years. Miles said she and her children grew up in Jefferson Manor. But she is fearful her grandchildren won’t be able to afford to live there.
“Just to watch the drastic changes in the community, it saddens me. The Bible says it’s a blessing to leave an inheritance to my children’s children, so I’m sowing the seed now for my grandchildren‘s lives.”
She also said she feels the community was kept in the dark about the project. She only found out about it when she voted at Bright Hope last month and ran into Peebles.
“They tried to sneak it by the community,” Peebles said. “They tried to blindside us.”
Joe Grace, a spokesperson for City Council President Darrell L. Clarke, provided this statement: “Council President Clarke and his staff are reviewing and monitoring this proposed development, and we will listen carefully to all of the community’s concerns, as we always do.”
Peebles says she will continue to fight.
“We do not need any more student housing in North Central Philadelphia,” Peebles said. “We need homeownership for long-term homeowners whose children want to stay in our community.”
The Yorktown Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2012, as the first example of a mid-20th century urban renewal planning project by a private developer to provide quality housing opportunities for Black Americans. Yorktown was built between 1959 and 1969.
Jefferson Manor is an older development built in 1958, that started out as 120 apartments and 106 townhouses that were privately owned and leased to tenants. Peebles said she was part of a tenants’ organization that created a Community Development Corp. that bought the complex and helped the townhouse renters become homeowners.
Yorktown’s boundaries are from Girard Avenue to Cecil B. Moore Avenue and from Broad Street to 11th Street. Jefferson Manor’s boundaries have some overlap, said Peebles, and are from Jefferson Street to Cecil B. Moore and from 13th to 10th Streets.