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SEPTA’s Wayne Junction makeover is bringing change to Germantown

Building denser development close to rail transit stations is one way policymakers are looking to reduce auto emissions and fight climate change.

Developer Ken Weinstein, president of Philly Office Retail, points out finished and future redevelopment projects in the Wayne Junction Historic District.
Developer Ken Weinstein, president of Philly Office Retail, points out finished and future redevelopment projects in the Wayne Junction Historic District.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

From a new third-floor apartment flooded with natural light, developer Ken Weinstein looked at the catalyst for renovating the 1902 Germantown factory: the buff-colored stone SEPTA Wayne Junction Station a block away.

“Imagine being able to roll out of bed, jump on the train, and get to Center City in minutes, to jobs around the region — or to the airport or 30th Street Station,” Weinstein said. “You can go anywhere from here.”

SEPTA spent $31.5 million to preserve the Frank Furness-designed station with the hope of stimulating development and attracting more riders in southern Germantown, an industrial center of the 19th and early 20th centuries that had suffered decades of neglect. The project was finished in 2015.

On March 1, the first tenants are set to move into the Autograph Apartments, the latest project amid steadily increasing investments in the neighborhood, much of it driven by Weinstein and his firm, Philly Office Retail.

“Transit is why we’re here,” he said.

Six SEPTA Regional Rail lines serve Wayne Junction station, as well as the Route 75 trackless trolley and two bus routes, the 23 and 53.

Wayne Junction is one of the newest and most prominent examples of a transit-oriented development in the region. In general, that approach relies on zoning changes and design requirements such as reducing parking requirements to build dense, walkable communities with commercial amenities near transit stations.

“Transit-oriented development is really sort of baked into the DNA of our region just because much of it evolved prior to the advent of the automobile age,” said Andrew Svekla, manager of smart growth programs for the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.

“Our extensive rail network is really one of our biggest assets,” he said.

Patterns of development changed after World War II, however, with movement toward single-family suburban homes and an increasing reliance on autos. Parts of many cities suffered deindustrialization and blight.

In another turn, urban neighborhoods are now providing opportunities for more compact neighborhoods as consumer tastes and public policy have shifted again.

In Philadelphia and the four suburban collar counties, 677 multifamily residential developments were built from 2010 to 2021 — 62% of them within a half-mile of a rail-transit station, according to a commercial real estate database Svekla cited.

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Forty-three out of 250 municipalities in the region have ordinances allowing for more dense development around transit stations, with varying standards, said Karin Morris, the DVRPC’s director of community planning. She also noted that it can be difficult to untangle government efforts to encourage transit-oriented development and what happens naturally due to market forces.

“There is a growing demand for what we could say are less car-dependent lifestyles,” Svekla said.

Wayne Junction station straddles the boundary between Germantown and Nicetown, and both neighborhoods have capitalized on it. In 2012, the Nicetown Community Development Corp. led the creation of 87 affordable-housing units in two apartment buildings, with first-floor commercial space.

Weinstein and his partners at Philly Office Retail have developed nine buildings since 2016, investing more than $17 million in the Wayne Junction Historic District of Germantown. Most is commercial space, plus the new apartments in the former plant of the Max Levy Autograph Co., a maker of precision printing equipment.

Rent for studios to two-bedroom apartments will run from $817 to $1,629 a month, a price point aimed at moderate-income working people, Weinstein said.

The former Blaisdell pencil factory at 137 Berkley St., redeveloped in 2020, is home to Deke’s Bar-B-Que and Attic Brewing Co., a craft beer maker with a taproom and beer garden and a growing reputation in Philadelphia’s beer scene. Attic also hosts live music, brings in a variety of food trucks, and hosts a farmer’s market on Sundays in the warmer months.

Merzbacher’s of Germantown, an old-school bread bakery, has occupied the ground floor of a renovated warehouse at 4530 Germantown Ave. since 2019. Upstairs is Philadelphia Woodworking, a maker of custom cabinets and furniture that also does finish carpentry.

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Weinstein said he expects to invest more than $30 million in two coming projects. First, a historic renovation of the Arguto Oilless Bearing Co. factory into a cafe with office space is scheduled to begin in March.

And construction will begin in the fall for Wayne Junction Diner Apartments, a six-story building with 143 units and commercial space on the first floor and in the basement. It is scheduled to be finished in 2024. The apartments are to be built on a large vacant lot next to Deke’s and the Attic Brewing Co.

Weinstein said he believes housing will tie together the other elements of the district, though some express worry about the disruption of construction and more traffic.

“We don’t want Wayne Junction to be hot,” Weinstein said. “We want slow, steady growth. We’re not trying to change the community character.”

Before restoration began in 2012, the Wayne Junction station was a dilapidated mess. Windows were boarded up, the station’s north entrance was closed because of a fallen roof, stairs and facades were crumbling, and rainwater would pool in passenger tunnels.

Built in 1881 and refurbished in 1900, the station had been a stop for, among others, the Reading Co.’s Crusader train to New York and the Baltimore & Ohio’s Royal Blue express to Washington. The B&0 stopped offering passenger service there in 1958.

Wayne Junction’s face-lift restored the passenger tunnels and stairways, while adding new signage, lighting, elevators and high-level platforms that make it accessible to people with disabilities.

Allia Lateef, an economics teacher at Penn Wood High School in Lansdowne, grew up in the area and remembers Germantown as a vibrant neighborhood. She would ride on her grandfather’s shoulders to parades.

When she bought a house and moved back in 2014, the Wayne Junction district was full of empty, deteriorating brick factories, empty storefronts, and boarded-up houses.

“It can start to feel like you’re being left behind,” Lateef said.

Now, she said, more people are on the street — not yet as walkable as her ideal, Paris, but looking up.

“Those factories are starting to have life. When I turn the corner onto Berkley Street, it’s such a feeling of peace to see lights on, faces in the windows,” Lateef said. When her daughters come to visit, they sometimes hang out at Deke’s or Attic Brewing.

Lateef said she sees the development as positive but does worry that longtime residents could eventually be pushed out.

“We have people who text and put postcards in the mailboxes, offering to buy houses for cash,” she said. “It’s very blatant. Having the train station, the neighborhood seems to be a good bet for investors.”

In 2021, homes in the Germantown zip code that includes the Wayne Junction Historical District sold for $50,000 to $600,000, with a median price of $210,000 — up 33% compared with 2019, according to Bright MLS. In 2015, the year the station renovation was finished, the median home price was $100,000.

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While the development brings opportunity to the neighborhood, it also has some potential downsides, said Emaleigh Doley, executive director of the Germantown United CDC, who grew up a couple of blocks away.

“So much activity happening all at once can be concerning to people — it introduces change,” she said.

With about 25% of Germantown residents living in poverty, she said the new apartments would likely be out of reach for many. The streets in the area, close to the Roosevelt Expressway and I-76, are full of traffic, and the city has not improved sidewalks in decades, Doley said.

Bakery owner Pete Merzbacher, 32, had outgrown his previous location in Olney and moved the business to Germantown in 2019, enamored of the natural light and Weinstein’s offer to outfit the bakery and build the cost into his rent.

When the pandemic hit, the business lost many of its wholesale customers in the restaurant industry, so Merzbacher pivoted to supplying 75 grocery stores with fresh, local bread, as well as offering pizza on Fridays and Saturdays.

“I didn’t think Wayne Junction would have a lot of foot traffic, and I don’t need that for my business, but I’m surprised how much that has changed already,” Merzbacher said.

He fell for tree-lined Germantown, too, and got a house about seven minutes away from the bakery.

“It’s not for everybody; you have to make some compromises to live in Germantown,” Merzbacher said. “There’s not a ton of nightlife. I don’t have a choice of 15 bars in walking distance. But if you prioritize trees and architecture over access to bars, it’s perfect.”

And he likes the people. “It’s a good crew up here, a nice vibe.”