The Germantown YWCA is nearing its 100th birthday, and the old gal isn't doing so well. The windows of the stately Georgian Revival residence hotel on Germantown Avenue are covered with plywood. Having suffered two fires, her brick walls are a bit wobbly, and there's a hole in the roof. Some would gladly put her out of her misery right now. But without the YWCA, Germantown wouldn't be Germantown.
Though the YWCA is fondly remembered as a neighborhood hub, the place where everyone in Germantown learned to swim, it didn't get made a national landmark, or listed on the city and national historic registers, just for having a commodious pool.
When the redbrick Y, designed by Louis H. Rush, was dedicated March 21, 1915 - an event that featured a famous soprano brought in from New York - the do-gooders on the board envisioned it as a haven for women who were then just starting to venture into the workforce. Germantown Y became a vocal advocate for workers' rights, the very same ones we're still talking about today, like decent wages and fixed hours. In 1946, the Y was the first Philadelphia social-service agency to integrate. By the '50s, its members were deeply involved in the civil rights movement.
With such an illustrious history, you would think Philadelphia officials would have gone out of their way to coddle this city-owned building. Instead, there has been a perfect storm of city agencies and politicians behaving badly. And now the Germantown YWCA is in a fight for its life.
The latest body blow involves a spat between the Redevelopment Authority and Councilwoman Cindy Bass. The authority wants to sell the building to a developer who would convert it into 50 apartments for low-income seniors.
Bass objects, saying the plan is just another instance of the city's keeping Germantown down by "dumping" undesirable uses on the neighborhood, like homeless shelters, methadone clinics, and public housing. Invoking Philadelphia's infamous "councilmanic prerogative," Bass blocked the sale late last year.
She's not wrong to be concerned about the growing number of social services in Germantown's struggling commercial district. With its convenient transit and great housing stock, Germantown should be doing better than it is. Rather, it's Bass' timing that's bad, and now she risks dooming the building.
The Y's condition has been deteriorating for years. But rejecting the sale triggered a call to city inspectors to determine whether the building should be condemned. Their verdict is expected any day. What happens after that is anyone's guess. All or part of the building could be torn down.
Bass isn't the only one to blame for the situation. Ever since the Y sold the building in 2006 to Germantown Settlement, it has been passed around like an unwanted child.
The city had encouraged that troubled social-services agency to buy the building. It even provided the financing, although the group was already on the verge of bankruptcy.
It took five more years for the city to reclaim the group's assets, yet during that time, it did nothing to secure or stabilize the vulnerable Y. It wasn't until the Redevelopment Authority assumed ownership in 2013 that the windows were finally boarded up. Even now, many remain broken and open to the elements.
To the authority's credit, it moved quickly to find a developer who could save the building. This winter, it selected Ken Weinstein, who has lobbied for years to buy the Y and turn it into senior housing.
Though Weinstein was the only bidder, his $15 million plan made a lot of sense. Not only did he promise to rehab the Y's exterior, but he also has partnered with two respected local nonprofits, the Mission First Housing Group and Center in the Park. Although it would mean another affordable-housing project in Germantown, it seemed like a small price to pay for saving the Y.
Then politics intervened.
Bass said she blocked the sale because she felt the public hadn't been consulted before Weinstein's group was chosen. If she felt a public hearing was necessary, perhaps she should have suggested it before she personally approved the language of the authority's request for proposals in September.
It's interesting that Bass isn't the only one trying to derail the Weinstein proposal. When the Germantown United community group held a meeting Jan. 22 to discuss Bass' decision, it was disrupted by two operatives from John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty's IBEW Local 98. They seemed to have a vested interest in scuttling Weinstein's bid.
Weinstein, who has used nonunion labor in the past, has tangled before with the powerful union leader, noted Yvonne Haskins, who serves on Germantown United's board. "Doc and Ken have been in a bunch of big battles," she said.
Bass wants the authority to issue a new request for proposals. But that could mean drawing out the process another six months. The building will only continue to deteriorate during that time. Maybe that's the idea. It would be easier to attract developers if they could construct a new building on the site.
Losing the Y would not be better for Germantown. Tattered as it is, the Y remains a dignified civic presence in the business district, part of a series of monumental civic buildings that line the avenue.
It's also hard to imagine the impact on Vernon Park. The Y's long brick facade serves as the park's northern edge and creates a serene backdrop to the memorial to Germantown founder Francis Daniel Pastorius. Sure, another building might someday take the Y's place, but could there be a wall as elegant and finely crafted? An empty lot would be an even worse outcome, because parks are defined as much by their boundaries as their open spaces.
Bass and the park friends group have been working to restore that shady town green to its former glory, as a first step in Germantown's revival. The threats to the Y's historic building don't endanger just Germantown's past; it's also Germantown's future that's at stake.