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In Sharswood/Blumberg, residents facing eminent domain want to fight back

Philadelphia Housing Authority’s plans for $526 million urban renewal project has property owners alarmed about being displaced

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Daily News reported Dec. 10 that businessman Kelvin Polanco and his mother had paid $110,000 for a building on Oxford Street at 24th in North Philadelphia. City records available online show that Polanco purchased the property for $18,000 on Jan. 10, 2012. Polanco maintains that the $18,000 was a final payment out of $110,000 he paid in cash over several years. However, in a sworn affidavit filed with the recorder of deeds, Polanco twice certified that the full purchase price of the property was $18,000. The certification ensured that Polanco paid a transfer tax on the property purchase amount of $18,000 instead of on the $110,000 he now claims to have paid.

KELVIN POLANCO served his country in Iraq. In 2003, he fought in Basra as a member of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne.

Today, Polanco said, he's in a battle at home.

His business, LX Mini-Market, on Oxford Street at 24th, is among more than 1,300 properties the Philadelphia Housing Authority is seizing by eminent domain for a major redevelopment project in North Philadelphia.

"The same goverment that I served and fought for is the same one trying to take my property away," said Polanco, 35.

In August, PHA officials along with Mayor Nutter and Council President Darrell Clarke broke ground on the $526 million project they hope will transform the Sharswood/Blumberg community.

The neighborhood is north of Girard Avenue, south of Cecil B. Moore and between 19th and 27th streets.

At the groundbreaking, Kelvin Jeremiah, PHA's president and CEO, said the 10-phase redevelopment plan may have a $1.4 billion economic impact on the area.

Polanco said he is all for improving the neighborhood, which for years endured a high crime rate and trash-strewn streets.

"I was here for the bad times, and now I want to be around for the good times," said Polanco, a U.S. citizen who moved here from the Dominican Republic.

Most tenants who once lived in the massive 8-acre Norman Blumberg apartments, at 24th and Master, have been moved to other housing in the city.

Because the neighborhood has been "depopulated" - in Jeremiah's words - Polanco, who runs the corner store with his mother, Carmen Class, said business has dropped off sharply.

Still, he wants to stay.

He said he and his mother paid $150,000 for the business and rented at first. After Polanco left the Army in 2004, they worked hard to buy the three-story building, with two apartments upstairs, for $110,000. They made their final payment in 2012.

That's about the time PHA began talking about tearing down Blumberg and rebuilding a mix of low-income and moderate-income housing, with a revitalized business strip on Ridge Avenue.

But some property owners were shocked in January and February when notices arrived that PHA planned to seize neighboring properties as well.

Polanco said his family invested $260,000, but the first offer from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority was only $56,000. The Redevelopment Authority manages the eminent-domain process for PHA. That offer was increased to $108,000, but Polanco said that's not enough.

Anna Gomez, who owns another mini-market, on Ridge Avenue at Master Street, said her family is suffering physically from the displacement.

"My husband's blood pressure shot up to 250 and we can't sleep at night," said Gomez, 72.

Jeremiah said yesterday that he would like to work with Polanco and other property owners.

"We want people who were in the community when it wasn't fashionable to be in it when it is transformed," Jeremiah said.

He said Polanco should speak to O.R. Colan Associates, the company handling relocation.

But Polanco said he's already been there, and someone there sent him to the Redevelopment Authority.

"It's like a dog chasing its tail," Polanco said. "It's a continuous loop."

Last Thursday, the Sharswood Neighborhood Advisory Committee asked lawyers from the Public Interest Law Center and Community Legal Services to meet with property owners at the Athletic Recreation Center.

Catherine Martin, of Community Legal Services, said a major problem involves "tangled titles," in which the property owner of record for a family-owned house has been deceased for decades.

"There is distrust of this process in the community," said Amy Laura Cahn, of the Public Interest Law Center.

"Community members still lack information about what is going to happen to them and/or what their options are. Some may also be still feeling the impact of past displacement through urban renewal in Philadelphia, an impact that has historically been felt by black and immigrant communities."

On Twitter: @ValerieRussDN