The old Industrial Trust & Saving Bank and Ninth National Bank at Front and Norris Streets, abandoned since the 1980s, are still hanging in a state of suspended animation. These beautiful, bygone temples of the banking industry, built at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, are products of stalled redevelopment after years of false starts and mothballed agreements. Hidden City Daily has extensively covered the plight of the banks throughout zoning appeals and demolition threats in 2012 and 2013. Given the recent whirlwind of real estate activity in Kensington and under the El, we checked in with the owners to see what the hold up was.
Last December both properties were placed on the market for $1,800,000, which has caused some confusion. The buildings were originally purchased for redevelopment by the current owner, local development firm Onion Flats, which purchased the properties from Norris Square Civic Association in 2015. The listing agent is John McDonald, one of the principals of Onion Flats.
Howard Steinberg, principal and chief financial officer of Onion Flats, told Hidden City Daily, “Our full intention is to develop those properties.”
If this is true, then why list the banks for sale? “The intention of having a “For Sale” sign is attracting good neighbors. We want to control what that building [the banks] become,” explained Steinberg. “The sign is there because it attracts conversation. Ultimately, we want to control and save the beauty and integrity of the buildings and find the right user and neighbor.” Adapting the two banks for commercial use is the goal, Steinberg maintained, a use that near neighbors have expressed support for in the past.
Concerns over the future of the banks can be traced all the way back to 1983, the last year the buildings were in active use by the Philadelphia National Bank. The Norris Square Civic Association (now Norris Square Community Alliance) purchased the properties from a real estate speculator in 1990. Since then, the buildings have remained vacant and deteriorating. A small forest now grows inside the historic banks and the roofs on both properties have largely caved in.
In 2010, NSCA sold the buildings for $167,000 to the Women’s Community Revitalization Project. The organization planned to demolish the properties and build a 25-unit complex of affordable housing called Nitza Tufino Townhomes. Despite the plan being rejected by a 60-21 vote in a May 2012 meeting of three nearby neighborhood associations, the Zoning Board of Adjustments gave the project the necessary approvals. Neighbors appealed the ZBA’s decision shortly afterward. The WCRP was awarded low income tax credits from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency in March 2013.
A few months later, WCRP cancelled their plans for the site and transferred ownership back to NSCA. The ZBA also overturned the variance approvals. NSCA next put out a Request for Proposals. Several developers responded with plans for the site. Onion Flats was the developer chosen by NSCA, and the real estate firm purchased the properties in March 2015.
In 2016, just a little over a year later, the properties were put back on the market for sale, but without the 6,000-square-foot vacant parcel to the south, which was included in the original sale. Onion Flats currently holds an active permit to build a mixed use building with 25 residential units and ground floor commercial space on the empty parcel. The current plan is a replication of the recently completed Capital Flats 2 in Northern Liberties.
“We are building a zero-energy development for the south [parcel],” said Steinberg. “[Onion Flats] is working on zoning documentation for the existing buildings.” He went on to explain that the firm is keeping their options open to create the best future use for the bank buildings and neighborhood. “This is the gateway to Norris Square.”
Steinberg said that the sale listing opens the door to attract “the right tenant, the right partner, or the right buyer.” “[The bank buildings] want to be a commercial development. [They are] integral to the development of these two sites.”
Kaelyn Anderson, director of economic development for the New Kensington Community Development Corporation, told Hidden City Daily, “It is one of the remaining white elephants in the neighborhood and we fully support its redevelopment and return to active mixed use. Front Street is a seeing a lot of new development, and this location has the opportunity to provide commercial space for a larger or more prominent commercial tenant that will drive traffic to the area and contribute to the economic revitalization of the area.”