For nearly three decades, the former American Railway Express garage, also known as the Eastern Building, at Cecil B. Moore and West Glenwood Avenues was allowed to crumble.
Earlier this month, however, the long-decaying structure, built in 1922 to serve North Philadelphia, was returned to usefulness: 37 loft-style rental apartments, an early-child-care center, a coffee shop, and space for offices.
Called Eastern Lofts, the $8 million project, at the edge of Brewerytown and across Cecil B. Moore Avenue from Strawberry Mansion, first appeared on the radar screen of Mosaic Development Partners' Greg Reaves in 2009-10.
"We were contacted about the building by the Reinvestment Fund" - the lender for Mosaic's Edison Square project at Seventh Street and Lehigh Avenue - which was "looking for someone to help the building's owner-developer think the project through," he said.
Although Reaves and partner Leslie Smallwood-Lewis spent a lot of time considering the project, "the market was so horrible in those days that everything stopped, and we walked away from the job," Reaves said.
In 2012, the firm built Diamond Green Apartments with Orens Bros. at 10th and Diamond Streets near Temple University.
Two years later, "we got a phone call from the latest owner saying that he was ready to sell," Reaves said. Mosaic acquired the Eastern Building in late 2013. Construction began in April 2015.
The building is a trapezoid and "very complicated in layout," Reaves said, "because of all the windows and party walls."
"We liked it because it came with a garage," he said, with a chuckle.
What the building did not have was a roof on the second floor - it had collapsed from years of neglect. Replacing that 30,000-square-foot roof had been a major obstacle to previous development plans.
"Putting on a new one would limit the yield" of the number of apartments, and not doing so "would be the only way to make the project work," Reaves said.
No roof meant the developer could create 17 second-floor units that look like townhouses - bi-level apartments are built along the sides of the interior, surrounding a courtyard that serves as community space. Also possible now was a third floor of apartments at 67,000-square-foot building, with open-air corridors.
"We also were allowed to add 80 legal windows," Reaves said.
The project used federal New Markets tax credits and historic tax credits leveraged by Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. and Philadelphia LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corp.) - one of many resulting "from a long-term strategy of community investments" in the city's underserved neighborhoods, Annie Donovan, director of the U.S. Treasury Department's Community Development Financial Institutions Fund, said at the June 8 ribbon-cutting ceremony.
The tax credits "made us able to provide below-market-rate apartments - 40 percent of the units are designated affordable," Reaves said.
The historic tax credits were not so easy to secure, Reaves said, noting, "They weren't approved by the state because of the decision not to replace the second-floor roof."
An appeal to the National Park Service, which administers the National Register, secured the historic credits, although the federal agency acknowledged that it had never approved them for a building without a roof.
Key to the project was neighborhood involvement, including that of community-development corporations in both Strawberry Mansion and Brewerytown and "30 local people," Reaves said.
Mosaic will own the coffee shop, set to open in September, and its offices will be in the building, too.
The early-child-care center, which will serve 80 children, also will open in September. It is an expansion of the state Keystone Star-rated Places and Spaces for Growth Learning Center in West Philadelphia, he said.
As a neighborhood developer, Reaves said, his goal is to make the lives of those living there better.
Unlike Center City developers, "we have to work harder, even though we know profits won't be as high," he said. "That's OK with us."