Fearing Demolition, Community Advocates Of Germantown YWCA Call For Emergency Meeting



Germantown YWCA and the Pastorius Monument viewed from Vernon Park. Note the broken, open windows on the second and third floors | Photo: Bradley Maule

Germantown residents are concerned and confused after a recent proposal by the non-profit Mission First and developer Ken Weinstein to restore the historic YWCA building at 5820-24 Germantown Avenue for low-income senior housing was rejected by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. Neighbors fear that, having no other immediate proposals in hand, the PRA may elect to demolish the 98-year old community center, which has fallen into serious decay after sitting unsecured and vacant and suffering numerous fires. Germantown United Community Development Corporation and Germantown Community Connection are hosting an emergency community meeting this Thursday at 6:30PM at First United Methodist Church of Germantown to discuss the potential threat of demolition. The organizations will aim to facilitate discourse among community members, City officials, and the developer and try to sort out facts from rumors.


Junior girls archery class, 1947 | Courtesy of the George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Until it closed, the Germantown YWCA served the surrounding community since 1917, fostering and coordinating inter-racial programs with other branches throughout the city in the early 20th century. The organization was instrumental in co-creating “Negro Achievement Week”–a precursor to “Black History Month—in 1928. Designed by Louis H. Rush, great grandnephew of founding father Benjamin Rush, the building has been listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places since 1984.

The origins of Germantown YWCA’s troubles began when the PRA foreclosed on the building’s former owners, Germantown Settlement, after lending the 126-year old social service agency $1.3 million in 2006 to renovate the property for a community center. The now-dissolved organization, which misused almost $100 million in government grants and contracts acquired over three decades, failed to make a first payment on their loan to the PRA. In 2010, the group’s assets were ordered for liquidation after their bankruptcy case was changed from a Chapter 11 to Chapter 7 by a federal bankruptcy judge. The YWCA, currently owned by the PRA, has stood vacant and vulnerable to arson and vandalism ever since.

In September, 2014 the PRA sent out a Request for Proposals seeking bids for the reuse and rehabilitation of Germantown YWCA, offering up to $1 million in subsidies for structural improvements and masonry repair. So far, Mission First Housing Group is only developer to submit a proposal. The housing group—which proposes a 50 unit apartment complex for low-income senior citizens–is committed to the reuse and restoration of the YWCA. Mission First counts 17 projects in the “Preservation of Affordable Housing” section of its property portfolio.

Mark Deitcher, director of business development for Mission First, says that while the structural integrity of Germantown YWCA has been significantly compromised by multiple fires and vandalism, the housing group is wholly committed to preserving the historic property. “Mission First has a strong track record in historic structures,” he says, citing Temple I, on N. 16th Street, Temple II North Gratz, and MPB School in North Philadelphia, the historic mansions of Parkside, as well as Fells Point Station in Baltimore and House of Lebanon in Washington, DC. “It would be important to intervene soon to preserve the building as was the plan in the PRA Request for Proposal.”

Deitcher says that Mission First’s proposal is to “maintain and strengthen the building’s existing envelope,” preserving its historical character and the mural on the east-facing wall. But, he says, they will not be able to save the “degraded” interior. In addition to the 50 units, Mission First and Weinstein plan to create a rooftop deck garden for residents, a community room, and management offices inside the building.

5820-24 Germantown Avenue - Streetview

The windows and main entrance at 5820 Germantown Avenue remain loosely boarded up | Photo: Google Streetview

Deitcher warns, however, that without significant PRA funding for structural repairs, the building will likely need to come down. It will cost more to rehabilitate the building than to demolish it and build new, he says. “However, Mission First understands the importance of  preserving a building that is part of the community fabric and that is our preference.” Along with the PRA subsidy, Mission First’s financing plan would include tax credits allocated by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency.

Andy Trackman, executive director of Germantown United CDC, isn’t confident that the Redevelopment Authority will reconsider its rejection of the Mission First proposal or wait for a better plan. Trackman has led the call to convene on Thursday night to discuss the ramifications of the rejected proposal. “The building is in a very deteriorated state,” he says. “We had learned that the PRA was seriously considering demolition if a buyer with a reuse to preserve the building was not found, and found soon. We learned that only one bid was submitted, and will most likely not be accepted. So we felt an obligation to bring this to the community’s attention to allow them to weigh in, voice their opinion, and perhaps even get an alternative plan.”

Trackman says that while he and GACDC approves of Mission First’s proposal to renovate the property for low-income senior housing, he is open to other ideas as long as they include preserving the historic integrity of the building. “I want to be clear that Germantown United is not advocating for the developer of the one bid, and that this project be accepted,” says Trackman. “I know there is an over-saturation in Germantown of social services and residential facilities that house very vulnerable populations, such as homeless and drug & alcohol recovering populations, so I am concerned about anything that isn’t going to be market rate. However, senior citizens are great neighbors. They will use the nearby neighborhood amenities, such as Vernon Park, as well as the stores in Germantown’s corridors. I personally believe this would not be a negative.”

Councilwoman Cindy Bass, who openly opposes the Mission First-Weinstein project, believes that accepting Mission First’s proposal would squander an opportunity for other developers to bring better, more revival-minded ideas for Germantown Avenue to the table. Bass says that if the PRA and neighbors rush to accept the first offer they will squander a key redevelopment opportunity that will keep the neighborhood in its cyclical slump. “I don’t like the idea of low-income senior housing on a commercial corridor that we’re working hard to revitalize,” says Councilwoman Bass. “I’m not interested in this plan at all. I have a two-pronged appeal and that is to get the PRA to finally seal up the building and get a better developer.” Bass says the PRA is primarily responsible for the building’s decay, failing to secure it from trespassers and arson since it was vacated.

She contends that because she is up for reelection this year, there appears to be an underlying expectation from the developer and GUCDC that she will sign off on Mission First’s proposal. Bass says that she will remain unfazed until a better developer is found, stating her commitment to bringing better business ideas to the neighborhood as her number one priority.

* * *

Germantown United CDC and Germantown Community Connection will host their meeting to discuss the YWCA’s future at First United Methodist Church of Germantown–6001 Germantown Avenue–on Thursday, January 21st 6:30PM. Developer Ken Weinstein and representatives of Mission First Housing Group will be in attendance to outline their proposed plans for the building. Brian Abernathy, the executive director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, will also be on hand to answer questions about the PRA RFP process and explain the PRA’s engineering study of the building’s current structural state.

About the author

Michael Bixler is a writer, photographer, and managing editor of Hidden City Daily. He is a former arts and entertainment reporter with Mountain Xpress weekly in Asheville, North Carolina and a native of South Carolina. Bixler has a keen interest in adaptive reuse, underappreciated architecture, contemporary literature and art, and forward-thinking dialogue about people and place. mmbixler.tumblr.com

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  1. Nice article, guys. But any info on why the proposal was rejected? Why was the PRA not convinced?

    • Hi Lawrence,

      At the meeting the PRA wasn’t entirely clear why Mission First’s proposal was rejected, but sounds like they may be holding out for a “bigger” developer to show up, as there was only one this go-around. Non-profit MF did say that it would likely cost $3 million to get the place in shape, which would require a significant amount of grant money to see their project to fruition. PRA is having L&I assess the structural state of the building, which may influence who, and with how much more money in hand, they choose award subsidies to. Hesitant after Germantown Settlement’s inability to deliver even on the first mortgage payment? More complex than that? It is a can of worms and lots of lingering questions remain. Even after the meeting the reasoning for the rejection is still a bit hazy and the words “cheaper to demo” keep cropping up, which is not a good sign for the future of Germantown YWCA.

  2. Concerned Germantown Resident

    Great article. Things just don’t “smell” right here. If Councilwoman Bass were so concerned about community input, why didn’t SHE call a community meeting to get feedback before outright rejecting the proposal. Low Income/Moderate housing can serve to stabilize a blighted area and increase home values in the neighborhood if managed right. Mission First seems to have a strong track record. What gives?

  3. i have to say that I am extremely disappointed in Councilwoman Bass’s opposition to developing or even considering quality senior housing. I can understand not wanted another drug or homeless shelter in Germantown but I do not equate housing for seniors in the same category. The Presser Nugent facility that was also doomed to be torn down turned out to be a great project and the developers did a fantastic job in restoration. I understand there is even a waiting list. So senior housing is in demand. Moreover, it just seems like Bass is not be truthful in this timeline. This building has been foreclosed for awhile and yet she has done nothing to prevent the decay or taken measures to help find other developers until late. What has she been really soon all this time? I hope the building doesn’t get demolished and I would like to hear what the developers have to say.

  4. I agree with Frank and it just seems that Bass is taking all this personally or has a personal bias against Weinstein. I’ll admit that I am not a big advocate of his but it looks like Missionone will be the real developer in all this. Since I have an aging mother who needs senior housing, once we move her out of her current home, I am all for housing options on a business corridor or at least close to one. This way she can get around without having to solely rely on transportation to get her to and from. And I believe that senior facilities add value to a community not bring them down. There is one in Allentown that is just beautiful. What does market rate actually mean? I find her comments discriminatory and senseless. If this is an election year for her, she better watch out.

  5. Hello,
    It is my understanding that Germantown Settlement was started by Quakers, but was in the hands of Emmanuel Freeman for the last twenty years, if the following article is correct.

    Is it accurate to write that the YWCA building fell in disrepair in the care of a Quaker organization?

    I would appreciate clarification on this point.


  6. Seriously? The time to pressure PRA has past. While a single plan/option and the elderly may not be everyone’s dream for a more vibrant Germantown Avenue, Weinstein is in the midst of several projects that have ultimately preserved large buildings in Germantown, which is more than one can say for most developers in this city at the moment. What kind of message is this sending him, a developer who chooses to reuse rather than demolish? And, one might also remind the Councilwoman, there is no shortage of large buildings “for sale” on Germantown Avenue to revitalize!!

  7. Adaptive reuse is always preferable to demolish and build and would further enhance the Germantown Avenue corridor to the benefit of all, not just the elderly. What better way to honor the tradition of the Germantown YMCA which was so important to the education and well being of the neighborhood youth, than to provide affordable housing to our aging population.

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