Kimberly Mathis put up with plenty when the public-housing tower that shadows her little Germantown street was inhabited, but things got worse after the Philadelphia Housing Authority emptied the apartments in 2011 in preparation for demolition. The drug dealers, who had done a brisk trade inside the Queen Lane high-rise, quickly shifted business to the sidewalks below. They even dragged a set of bleachers to a spot across from Mathis' house, which she bought from Habitat for Humanity and shares with a disabled daughter.
That was the last straw. Furious, Mathis says, she grabbed an ax and proceeded to hack the bleachers into firewood. The dealers scattered like so many roaches, taking up new positions a block away. She says her stretch of Priscilla Street has been dealer-free ever since.
If only getting rid of the notorious Queen Lane tower were as simple.
In the two tumultuous years since PHA announced plans to replace the graceless, 16-story misfit with 55 rental houses, the agency's relationship with neighborhood homeowners has gone from bad to worse. For a while, it seemed that the project would enable PHA, which is still recovering from the Carl Greene scandal, to showcase a gentler, more collaborative style. Instead, the agency now finds itself in the position of ramming through a problematic design.
Like so many PHA projects, this one looks as if it belongs in the suburbs, not a dense rowhouse neighborhood. The design by Kitchen & Associates, a New Jersey firm, trots out all the architectural cliches of the '80s and '90s, like the garish colors and peaked roofs that are aimed at enlivening the houses' otherwise flat facades.
PHA's insistence on stacking duplexes on top of ground-floor units also means the buildings will be much taller than their traditional rowhouse neighbors. To reach the upper units, the architects came up with a series of clunky staircases. PHA president Kelvin Jeremiah promises the houses will be faced in real stucco, but given the mounting costs - now $309,000 per unit - there is a strong chance they will downgrade to the cheaper, synthetic version called EIFS, similar to what was used at Center City's new Home2Suites.
But the real issue isn't the way the houses look. It is the clash of visions for the neighborhood's future.
PHA's Jeremiah says he sees this project as an opportunity to provide more public housing for the poorest of Philadelphia's poor. But residents like Mathis, who have organized as Northwest Neighbors of Germantown, believe the area has long been a dumping ground for low-income housing and want PHA to help them repair the damage.
What their little pocket of Germantown desperately needs, the group argues, is more homeowners who could help revitalize the area, which is just a short walk from the Queen Lane SEPTA station and the grand stone houses of East Falls. They believe the 55 units on the Queen Lane site should include a mix of low-income rentals and for-sale houses that the working poor can afford.
This is hardly an unreasonable request. PHA's most successful projects over the last two decades have been mixed-income developments, like Hawthorne, near 12th and Catharine Streets, and the remade Schuylkill Falls development in East Falls, both built under the federal government's Hope VI program. They provide housing choices for everyone at the low end of the income spectrum: families who are able to pool their resources to buy starter homes, the single parent with a minimum-wage job, the people dependent on a Social Security check.
The notion that city housing authorities should build mixed-income projects grew out of the same Bill Clinton-era thinking that resulted in the implosion of dozens of scorned public-housing towers across America. These projects didn't just impose architecture that was at odds with their neighbors; they created high concentrations of poverty. Besides the 55 units planned for Queen Lane, PHA owns an additional 53 low-income rentals in that little node.
Even though the Queen Lane tower is empty now, its effects are all too visible. The blight radiates out from the tower site, devouring houses and leaving empty lots on the adjacent blocks. Yet, as you move farther from the tower site, the more intact the blocks become.
Two streets flanking the tower block vividly illustrate the power of home-ownership to stabilize the neighborhood. On Mathis' block of Priscilla Street, where Habitat for Humanity has systematically rehabbed and sold 23 houses, conditions are pristine. But on the opposite side, along Pulaski Avenue, the low-income rental houses list and sag. No one chases the drug dealers away.
Although both sides agree that the Queen Lane tower needs to come down, the stalemate over what to do next continues. The Northwest Neighbors bear some of the blame. Determined to force PHA to acknowledge that the tower site was a colonial-era burial ground set aside for "strangers, Negroes, and mulattoes," they pushed for extensive archaeological work. PHA complied, and even modified its design to avoid building the new houses on the footprint of the cemetery.
Unfortunately, this means that two-thirds of the block will now be left empty, probably as a grass field. If it is designated as a historic burial ground, PHA will be unable to restore the playground that existed there before the tower's closure - a real loss for the neighborhood. Yet there is no landscape plan and no maintenance fund for the open space. That, along with the concentration of rental housing, sounds like a recipe for creating blight all over again.
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