In Kensington, A Major Reversal Brings New Hope For Historic Banks

May 3, 2013 | by Christopher Mote


Vacant banks on Front Street | Photo: Peter Woodall

Vacant banks on Front Street | Photo: Peter Woodall

An affordable housing project at the site of two historic Kensington banks appears to be dead in the midst of intense neighborhood opposition, including an ongoing legal appeal by nearby residents.

Hidden City sources indicate that the Women’s Community Revitalization Project has returned its low-income housing tax credits to the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency and will not pursue development of the Nitza Tufino Townhomes at the corner of Front and Norris Streets, which had been in the planning since 2010.

The project would have resulted in the demolition of the Ninth National Bank and Industrial Title, Trust Savings Company, which have sat vacant for 30 years. They were last in use as a PNB branch, and were acquired by the Norris Square Civic Association in 1989. As we reported in January, a diverse set of activists have been opposing the demolition of the banks, which they see as architectural and historic assets of the neighborhood.

The Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency announced its award of the tax credits in March, following the Zoning Board of Adjustment’s granting, last August, of a variance for 25 housing units at 1942-58 North Front Street.

The project had support from the Norris Square Civic Association, which sold the title of the property to WCRP but still retains the mortgage note, and advocates of affordable housing who feared the spread of gentrification into the neighborhood.

The neighboring civic groups–Fishtown Neighbors Association and East Kensington Neighbors Association–strongly opposed the plan on the grounds of density, safety, and preserving the banks for commercial use along a commercial corridor.

Representatives from WCRP did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The ZBA’s decision had been appealed by two nearby residents and was set to be heard in Common Pleas Court in June. WCRP’s brief in the case was due next week.

It was not immediately clear if WCRP would hold onto the property or if ownership would revert to Norris Square Civic. Although the banks are listed in the Kensington Textile National Historic District, an absence of local designation leaves them unprotected from demolition.


About the Author

Christopher Mote Christopher Mote covers stories of preservation, planning, zoning and development. He lives in South Philadelphia and has a special fondness for brownstone churches and mansard roofs.


  1. James says:

    Demolition is the only option unless a local bank steps in to acquire and then restore it. Most likely, no bank will want this kind of albatross as the paridigm for banking has changed over the decades.

    But a better option is deconstruction of the bank before demolition when artifacts can be salvaged and then sold to be incorporated into newer structures in the Philadelphia area. Temple University may want to acquire some of those artifacts for incorporation in the new college buildings they are erecting.

    Holding on to the structure is akin to demolition by neglect.

  2. Aaron Slater says:

    So let me get this right, their is contention between organizations who support the creation of low income housing in a low income neighborhood and organizations in extremely rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods who oppose the density of homes/living spaces and the fact that the historic derelict buildings will be demolished.

    So Fishtown Neighbors Association and East Kensington Neighbors Association want to keep the historic integrity of the banks. Are they proposing anything other than letting them sit there and rot? Hidden City has done numerous stories on these structures and they are in pretty bad shape.

    Personally I do love historic integrity and architecture, but at some point people are going to need affordable homes. Right in East Kensington newly constructed homes start at $300,000 dollars. I got to say that is pretty ridiculous.

    If an argument can be made that there is already an abundance of housing stock, then perhaps the argument to retain these commercial buildings on this commercial corridor could fly, but it still doesn’t address the issue of affordable homes for low income people. Now if you want to keep the banks historic integrity over providing low income housing, I would argue that designating swaths of West Kensington as low income housing and instituting price and rent controls could serve the diverse communities desires.

    However if the argument is that the residents of the $300,000 houses want a gastropub in their nicely refurbished historic bank over dense low income homes for the poor, then I have to object.

    1. WeBuiltThisCity says:

      My question to you is the following: who do you want to build the affordable housing for? The existing neighbors, or for lower income people around the city. The existing low income neighbors already have a place to live. Maybe it needs to be fixed up. Maybe it doesn’t. So then you go and build affordable housing. Are the existing low-income families going to move into the new affordable housing? If so, what happens to the housing they were formerly in? Is it purchased by somebody else and rehabbed if it is in bad shape?

      I guess you could argue that at some point the children of the low-income neighbors will need a house of their own. But do they need to live in the same neighborhood? Should we build new affordable housing for them, or maybe they could move into one of the existing homes in the neighborhood as the older generation slowly moves out.

      What you are missing is that these existing homes, which for generations have provided affordable housing to the neighborhood, will continue to grow more unaffordable if we don’t allow new, market rate homes to be built. Hundreds upon hundreds of them. If we don’t, the people who want to live in Fishtown/E Kensington/Norris Square because of its access to transit and jobs will just buy the existing affordable housing stock and make it more unaffordable. By allowing the construction of LOTS of units, you preserve the affordability where it already is. By constraining the market and complaining about $300,000 houses you are showing a lack of understanding for the way the real estate market works. And there is no way to build even close to enough NEW affordable housing units to keep up with the pace if you constrain the supply by stopping market rate development.

      Let’s focus on preserving the affordability of the existing housing stock. We are failing miserably at that.

  3. Anthony Zul says:

    The buildings are not beyond saving, and there are extensive examples of old bank buildings being reused for commercial purposes other than banking. There’s no reason these building can’t be saved, and no reason they shouldn’t be saved.

  4. Stanford Gable says:

    There is no shortage of affordable housing in the Norris Square neighborhood. Currently there are 8 new homes being constructed at St Boniface at a cost of $300k per unit. They will be sold at approximately $150K. You do the math. Funding for repairs to existing homes would do much more to help people of limited income stay in the community. Stop trying to make this an issue about affordable housing. What’s currently being built isn’t exactly affordable at $150k and the cost to taxpayers is wasteful spending.

    NSCA is guilty of demolition by neglect with respect to these buildings. I’m sure the surrounding communities would help in stopping further damage until a new plan can emerge. Point your fingers at them.

  5. WeBuiltThisCity says:

    This is next to transit. Allowing a lot of housing to be built next to transit will help keep the existing housing stock more affordable.

    Restricting new housing construction, which most of the surrounding neighborhood groups and affordable housing advocates seek to do, will keep the existing housing on its quickly upward spiraling trajectory. Simple supply and demand. People want to live in Fishtown/E Kensignton/Norris Square. Neighbors won’t allow for new housing construction. Existing housing gets more expensive.

    We shouldn’t worry about how much it costs to buy a new house in East Kensington. It costs a lot to buy a new house anywhere. Because new buildings are more valuable than old buildings when the value of the land is the same. We should build enough new housing and rent/sell it at the market rent to help preserve the current affordability of the existing housing stock. That is how a healthy real estate market works.

    1. Karen says:

      In any basic Economics 101 class that is not how healthy real estate market works?? Ask any realtor! That’s how neighborhoods go on a downward spiral back to the ‘badlands’ while the outsider’s who are the low income developers make a killing financially by building rental units that cost them nothing to build andsit empty because there is no demand for them by consumers and they become crime ridden and desololate.

      We should worry anytime private companies use public funds and make a profit.

      1. WeBuiltThisCity says:

        Reread what I wrote. You actually agree with me.

  6. Rich says:

    Well what do you know , someone woke up to how ridiculous tearing down these structures would be . NICE !
    Look…… How many mty lots are there in Kensington ? How many property’s that’s are years if not decades behind in taxes ? PLEASE , why is it affordable now is owning a town house ? Why not build ( on already mty lots ) apartments , with a court yard , NO CURB CUTS . Parking in back ! Build up the population and some one will use those Banks . Mariposa on Baltimore reused an old bank building , why moy use the shells of the structures for somthing ? If you limit tax abatements to structures like these , they get saved , money is spread to needy areas and stability brought to places that need it most . PLEASE use up the mty lots first and leave what little character and history the areas have left to future generations to enjoy and study. If you want bland and boring buildings………………. Move to the suburbs !

  7. Soldat says:

    It is very rare a building is ever beyond saving. Buildings have been restored for use after decades of neglect, being burned to a shell, and other extreme damage. While I agree, the interior of those buildings are in horrible shape as long as the walls and foundation are sound the buildings shell can be preserved and the interior redone.

    The Norris Square Civic Association wants to keep the neighborhood crime ridden and poor for fear they might have an increase in their property value. Most normal people want their property value to go up and their neighborhood to become a nicer, safer, and cleaner place. Most people want to keep the buildings that that make their neighborhood unique and atest to the history of their neighborhood, but nope, not them. They are the same group who tore down the historic St Boniface Church, which was a MAJOR facade right on Norris Square, so they could build more crappy low income housing.

  8. eldondre says:

    norris square has owned the building since 1989 they are responsible for its condition. an architectural firm wanted to restore the building a few years back but pat dicarlo and her evil empire shot them down.

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