On a recent afternoon, a woman in a minivan pulled up to the group of neighborhood activists and city officials gathered outside Germantown Town Hall. "You're planning to do something with this building?" the woman asked. "Please, you've got to do something good with it."
The 1923 Town Hall - a refined Beaux Arts version of the neoclassical Merchant's Exchange in Old City - has been empty since 1995. It stands, deteriorating, on Germantown Avenue directly across the street from Germantown High.
"It's really depressing to be in that school all day looking out here at this building wasting away," said the woman. She drove away.
For those at Germantown High, and for the assembled activists and officials, Town Hall is a daily reminder of Germantown's lingering unmet potential.
The ceremonial hall with entablature memorials to Germantown's World War I dead is a refined, graceful space, remarkable even in a neighborhood that is a showplace of American architecture between 1700 and 1930. Germantown's streetscape is as exuberant and variegated as any city district in America, its organic urban form the antithesis of Center City's oppressively rational grid. And today, like Town Hall, it is stuck, seemingly too expensive to fix, its potential obvious and yet painfully elusive.
"Where's Germantown going?" asks Alan Greenberger, deputy mayor for planning and economic development. "That's a question we keep asking. Germantown should be fabulous. I'm not sure I know why it isn't."
"I have always thought," says Cindy Bass, newly elected Eighth District councilwoman, who will take office in January, "that this is one of the neighborhoods that has the most potential to grow and develop. Its potential speaks for itself."
So much of that potential lies in the neighborhood's turrets and towers, crests and colonnades, porches and porticos, in the slate and stucco and stone. In 1933, when the National Park Service launched the Historic American Building Survey, they began the immense project in Germantown because of the area's rich architectural history.
"We are a 326-year-old community with connections both deep and broad," says David Young, the director of Cliveden, the historic mansion on the site of the Battle of Germantown. "We think that's cool, but it means nothing if there's no connection to contemporary life."
Connections are so often made through the buildings themselves. Ken Weinstein, a real estate developer known for his adaptive reuse of train stations and other commercial properties, has been buying Germantown buildings for 22 years. "I fell in love with taking something decrepit and making something wonderful," he says.
But Weinstein, who estimates he has invested $10 million in Germantown, says the net result has been stasis. "For 22 years, 99 percent of the people have been saying the same thing as they are today: 'Now, Germantown is going to take off!' "
Everyone is still waiting.
A group of businessmen started Colonial Germantown Inc. in the 1930s with the idea of consolidating historic sites into a fabricated pedestrian village. It never happened. In 2006, the caretakers of 15 historic sites tried again to market the area as a tourist destination by forming the nonprofit Historic Germantown.
Unlike the 1930s, the idea today isn't to objectify the past, but rather to engage with it. In May, Historic Germantown hired a full-time director, Barbara Hogue, and charged her with helping the sites connect with neighborhood residents and with tourists who are drawn to Philadelphia for the Liberty Bell and better-known historic attractions. "We want to give people a chance to engage with their own history. They want to know, 'Where do I fit in?' " says Hogue. "It's not just about 300 years ago something exciting happened to a stranger. We're telling stories about today."
Already, attendance is up. Cliveden hosted a record number of visitors in 2011, surpassing its projected annual attendance in August. Altogether, the sites bring up to 50,000 people a year to Germantown, making an estimated economic impact of $3 million to $4 million. Hogue's goal is to double that in two years.
All this is possible, community advocates are quick to note, because Germantown has enormous assets - intact residential blocks with relatively little abandonment, a few strong educational institutions, churches (90 of them, in fact), a significant retail avenue with ample storefronts, considerable transit infrastructure, and the historic sites. Urban planners say Germantown has "good bones."
"But we've got to figure out how to put some meat on the bones," says Yvonne Haskins, a lawyer who has worked extensively in community development in Philadelphia and who has been representing neighbors in the recent efforts to stop two low-end chain stores from opening in the Chelten Plaza shopping center. "How do you build on the bones? That's the question. I'm telling you, people are hungry for answers."
The hunger has been made worse by the unraveling of community leadership. "Why is Germantown not better off?" asks Weinstein, the developer. "Because we've had a community-development corporation that worked against the interests of the community." After that organization, Germantown Settlement, was dragged down by debt and corrupt management in 2010, community members came together to form Germantown Community Connection. That effort fell apart when neighbors divided over the Chelten Plaza store issue.
And now, says Councilwoman-elect Bass, "there is a void in terms of direct leadership."
Beyond that, say city officials and community leaders, there is lack of unity. "The neighbors are fragmented," says Deputy Mayor Greenberger, in part due to wide class differences across the geographically massive neighborhood. Once the neighborhood can speak in a unified voice and prove it's competent at managing its resources without corruption, Greenberger says, development money will flow.
Of course, the difficulty with all of this - and perhaps also why it is so exciting - is that it places the burden of directing neighborhood investment on residents and business owners, and not the city.
The latest effort to address that fragmentation is Germantown United, a nascent community-development corporation with about 22 local civic organizations and neighborhood associations as members that formed out of the opposition to the Chelten Plaza project. "We have to attract people from every corner and allow them to demonstrate they can get things done," says Haskins, who has been a driving force behind the group.
Germantown United has been holding regular stakeholder meetings. "People are coming to the table religiously, envisioning what they want to see, and they're serious about it," says Haskins. Organizers hope the process will produce an action agenda by January.
One hope for ambitious neighborhood-based groups is to ride waves of investment that come from peripheral agencies. This month, SEPTA plans to begin the $30 million renovation of the turn-of-the-century Wayne Junction regional rail station at Wayne and Roberts avenues. Wayne Junction is just what its name indicates, a conduit between North Philadelphia and the Northwest. It's also one of the few regional rail stations that offer constant - and fast - service to and from Center City and University City.
Both Haskins and Weinstein see the investment in the station, part of a broader transit-oriented development pushed by the City Planning Commission, as a major catalyst for development in Germantown. Weinstein has purchased two major parcels near the station. "I want to be part of that energy," he says. Germantown United, for its part, wants to link the station's redevelopment to further investment in the worn but architecturally vibrant Wayne Avenue commercial district.
Almost everyone wishes for a similar spark for Town Hall. Councilwoman-elect Bass says she'll seek tax credits and grants for its preservation. It's easy to see the monumental, circular hall (and the series of smaller offices and conference rooms) becoming something inspiring. Perhaps the public face of a community-development agency like Germantown United, or even as a visitor center for the entire Northwest. One educator, John Churchville, proposes an incubator for green businesses linked to the science program at Germantown High School across the street.
Haskins isn't sure if renovation of Town Hall will lead or follow Germantown Avenue's resurgence. She only knows it has to happen. "Sooner or later," she says, "human beings figure things out."