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Diane Mastrull: Daughter of Tioga section returns with plans for housing 'Renaissance'

Wearing a full-length white mink coat and red leather gloves, Margo Robinson took in the view one morning last week in North Philadelphia. It wasn't pretty, not by a long shot.

Margo Robinson in a vacant lot at 16th Street and Erie Avenue, where her project is planned. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer
Margo Robinson in a vacant lot at 16th Street and Erie Avenue, where her project is planned. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff PhotographerRead more

Wearing a full-length white mink coat and red leather gloves, Margo Robinson took in the view one morning last week in North Philadelphia. It wasn't pretty, not by a long shot.

Looming next to the vacant lot at 16th Street and Erie Avenue, where Robinson stood in heels that matched her gloves, was an abandoned, crumbling rowhouse. Several more, most boarded up and bearing "no trespassing" notices, added to the misery of the litter-strewn block.

In stark contrast to all that gloom, Robinson, arms outstretched, exuded enthusiasm as she giddily promised a transformation of the 100-by-57-foot parcel in the city's Tioga section.

"This is going to be beautiful because I want to come back home," she said.

It's a tract the 59-year-old mortgage professional from the Far Northeast owns and intends to develop - a site Robinson, who grew up on North 16th Street, passed daily on her way to Simon Gratz High School. Back then, a doctor's "castle" - as locals referred to the grand home - occupied the corner plot.

Robinson's plan - her first as a developer - is to build 12 two- and three-bedroom, four-story condominiums, starting at $150,000 and $199,999, and called "The Renaissance."

An overreaching name, perhaps, considering the work needed for a true revival of a neighborhood in distress.

Then again, Robinson said she had no intention of stopping at a dozen wood-frame attached houses featuring granite countertops, bamboo floors, stainless-steel appliances, maple cabinets, real (not fiberglass) bathtubs, and off-street parking. Her targeted buyers are "upwardly mobile professionals" such as doctors and nurses from the nearby Temple University School of Medicine.

"This is just the beginning phase of the Renaissance," said Robinson, herself a revival story. She has evolved from single mother of two on welfare, whose past money problems are evidenced in a half-dozen civil claims filed against her in the 1990s for late rent payments, to operator of a mortgage brokerage and consulting business, Robinson Financial Services, for the last 19 years, and onetime dispenser of advice on the radio station WDAS-AM.

Her goal now is to build at least 100 houses in Tioga in the next five to seven years. So far, Robinson said, she has 11 lots bought or under agreement of sale.

Financing for the condo project on Erie is secured, mostly from "a person here in the city who is extremely very well-known," Robinson said, declining to name names. Groundbreaking is expected by May, with the project, because it will be modular construction, ready for occupancy four months later.

Because she believes a true community needs to be a blend of housing and businesses, Robinson has been working to recruit a variety of merchants - including a butcher, a produce outlet, and a dry cleaner - to a two-block commercial corridor she envisions for nearby West Venango Street.

She said she had commitments from 15 business owners so far, and she plans to open an art gallery.

"I'm going to be the [Bart] Blatstein of this area," she said, referring to the developer behind Northern Liberties' revival who is trying to work similar magic on North Broad Street.

Among those answering Robinson's Renaissance call to action are Allison Filkill and her fiancé, Antoine Warren, who run the thriving five-year-old Filkill's Samiches Deli in West Philadelphia.

They are "100 percent" into the idea of opening a restaurant as part of Robinson's Tioga redevelopment push, Warren said last week. Describing the area as "a dark cloud right now," he said their restaurant would ensure "it can have sunlight."

"The 215 Experience," an area-code reference, also would offer entertainment, Warren said. He and Filkill are designing a menu while working with Robinson on a property deal. Warren said they preferred to own rather than rent because ownership fosters a true sense of being "part of the neighborhood."

Applauding Robinson's development initiative is Joe Romello, a former business partner whose ill-timed maiden voyage in developing and revitalizing rowhouses near Fairmount in 2007 resulted in bankruptcy, he said.

It was through no fault of Robinson, who lined up buyers for the 13 houses, said Romello, a West Chester resident now working in information technology.

"She was a go-getter" and doesn't back down easily in trying to improve the quality of life for African Americans, he said.

Strong-willed is the adjective offered by Nicholas Lust, director of project management at Professional Building Systems, the modular-home builder in Middleburg, Pa., north of Harrisburg, that will provide the Renaissance units.

He also has helped to team Robinson with subcontractors who can help her stay on budget, keep her project moving forward, and respect her decisions. Being taken seriously has been a challenge in the male-dominated construction field, Robinson said.

Just the opposite was on display during a visit to the site last week with a photographer.

Passerby Jonathan Lee, 48, a Tioga native who now owns a business that helps disenfranchised communities, stopped and asked what the fuss was about. When Robinson outlined her plans, Lee bowed in praise.

"Knowing that a black woman is doing a project here is a blessing," Lee said. "Don't stop here."

The hard-edged businesswoman in white fur dissolved into tears.

"It is a pleasure to come back home," she sobbed.

Diane Mastrull:

Developer Margo Robinson talks about the condos she is planning near Temple University School of Medicine. Go to