To explain why Chinatown needs a community center, John Chin likes to point out a tight, dead-end alley behind his father's old restaurant on 10th Street near Cherry.

This was his childhood "playground" - a quiet spot where Chin and his pals played soccer.

Chin, 46, born and bred in Chinatown, said the alley was the best the neighborhood had to offer. The nearest city recreation centers were in Northern Liberties or Queen Village.

"This was our little, safe space," Chin said.

Chin has spent much of his professional life trying to improve the situation.

As executive director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. (PCDC) for 12 years, he has led the nonprofit group's crusade for a community center. After fits and starts, the project has finally moved off the mark in recent months.

In the process, it has evolved from just a $6 million community center to a $66 million mixed-use complex. Besides a second-floor basketball court and multipurpose rooms and offices, the plan calls for 144 apartments - a fourth of which would be rented to lower-income residents - and ground-floor retail space.

The proposed 23-story building, on the northwestern corner of 10th and Vine Streets, has cleared the city Planning Commission and Zoning Board of Adjustments. PCDC, meanwhile, has assembled the land, with PennDot agreeing to sell most of the parcels for $1.

The next hurdle: money.

Chin is hopeful the project can line up financing this year, despite the ongoing economic slump. Since it is in a distressed area, it qualifies for a special type of "new market" tax credits, which are allocated by the U.S. Treasury for certain low-income communities.

PCDC has teamed up with Teres Holdings L.L.C. to develop the project, called Eastern Tower. Teres built The Hub on Chestnut Street near the University of Pennsylvania, as well as the Shops at Liacouras Walk at Temple University.

Chin says Eastern Tower is vital to the neighborhood's future. "For Chinatown to survive, it must grow," Chin said.

The Eastern Tower would be another boost for the growing neighborhood north of the Vine Street Expressway and south of Spring Garden Street, between Eighth and Broad Streets.

Chin calls it Chinatown North; others prefer the Loft District. Whatever its name, the area is quickly changing as old factory space is converted into apartments and offices.

Two blocks from the proposed Eastern Tower, brothers Michael and Matthew Pestronk are renovating the old Goldtex textile factory on 12th Street into 163 rental apartments. The $38 million project should begin leasing in August, Michael Pestronk said.

Demand for rental apartments, he said, remains strong overall in Philadelphia.

"There's almost no vacancy for Center City rental properties," Pestronk said. Institutional Property Advisors, which provides market research to real estate investors, projected the city's rental vacancy rate to remain in the low 4 percent range this year.

For PCDC, the decision to add a residential tower to the project was seen as a way to pay for the ongoing cost of a community center.

Chin said the community-based nonprofit group at first thought of raising the money for a community center through grants. But that left an unaddressed problem: Where would PCDC get the money to run the facility once it was open?

By adding apartments and retail space, the rents from those will help to pay down the debt, while also supplying funds for running a community center, he said.

In Chinatown, the demand for affordable housing is intense, he said. Historically, Chinatown has encompassed the area from Eighth to 13th, and from Filbert to Vine.

In the 1980s, an influx of immigrants from China put pressure on housing. More and more residents and business owners have sought out property to the north of Vine Street.

From 2000 to 2010, the combined population of Chinatown and Chinatown North increased more than 60 percent to 3,231 people, most of whom are Asian, PCDC said.

Chin said almost half of the families in Chinatown live at or below the poverty line. Of the one- and two-bedroom units planned for the Eastern Tower, up to 36 will be priced at rates affordable for moderate-income neighbors.

When PCDC presented the project to the community last fall, the response was so favorable that many people asked about buying units instead of renting. "There's a lot of interest in buying," said Cecilia Moy Yep, a director of PCDC and longtime Chinatown organizer.

The residential tower could become a mix of rental and condominium units.

Yep and Chin said the building could become a new gateway for Chinatown on busy Vine Street.

"This building means a lot to me," Chin said. If more residents move to the neighborhood, it will help to secure more jobs and business for the community, he added.

"This is a proud moment for the community. And why not?" Chin said. "We should have our own significant building."

Contact staff writer Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659, jlin@phillynews.com, or @j_linq on Twitter.