Historic Kensington Banks “For Sale,” But Not Really

 

These two historic banks at Front and Norris Streets in Kensington have sat vacant and decaying for nearly four decades, while promises of redevelopment have come and gone. | Photo: Michael Bixler

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.

Looking out from just inside the entrance of the Ninth National Bank in 2012. | Photo: Peter Woodall

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.

The fading grandeur and scale of the old Ninth National Bank and Industrial Trust & Saving Bank are on full display at the intersection of Norris and Amber Street. | Photo: Michael Bixler

“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.”

About the author

Dennis Carlisle (AKA GroJLart) is the anonymous foulmouthed blogger of Philaphilia, where he critiques Philadelphia architecture, history, and design. He resides in Washington Square West. GroJLart has contributed to Naked Philly, the Philadelphia City Paper's Naked City Blog, and Philadelphia Magazine's Property Blog.



3 Comments


  1. These despicable developers are nothing more than slumlords in new clothing.

  2. I remember being in this bank with my parents when I was a child. It is so odd to see the dilapidation inside. It was quite a busy bank back then. I live out of state now but my family still lives in this neighborhood. I really hope it becomes a bustling commercial building again.

  3. They look pretty far gone. I hope they don’t get torn down, like everything else in Philly that is a beautiful old building. The developers seem to always get their way in this town, and then they run to Palm Beach with all of their money made off the backs of poor Philly. Such a tragedy.

Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

Recent Posts
Archeological Dig Will Explore Philly’s Pre-colonial Waterfront

Archeological Dig Will Explore Philly’s Pre-colonial Waterfront

May 24, 2019  |  News

Philly's maritime history on the Delaware River is the focus of a new archeological study at the former site of West Shipyard. Kimberly Haas has the story > more

Unraveling Myths About Philly's Pioneering African American Architect

Unraveling Myths About Philly’s Pioneering African American Architect

May 23, 2019  |  Vantage

Amy Cohen separates fact from fiction surrounding one of Philadelphia's most famous architects, Julian Francis Abele > more

A Fine And Public Space: Preservationists Revive Philadelphia's Historic Cemeteries As Vibrant Spaces For The Living

A Fine And Public Space: Preservationists Revive Philadelphia’s Historic Cemeteries As Vibrant Spaces For The Living

May 21, 2019  |  Vantage

New life is blooming at Philadelphia's historic cemeteries. Starr Herr-Cardillo has the story > more

Appetite For Deconstruction: North Philly Nonprofit Tackles Three Pressing Issues With One Program

Appetite For Deconstruction: North Philly Nonprofit Tackles Three Pressing Issues With One Program

May 17, 2019  |  News

Philly Reclaim brings sustainability, historic preservation, and job training together with its architectural salvage program. Kimberly Haas has the story > more

Arson & Archway Raise Awareness Of A 19th Century Architect

Arson & Archway Raise Awareness Of A 19th Century Architect

May 14, 2019  |  Vantage

Pauline Miller takes us on a journey from Old City to Mount Moriah Cemetery where the work of architect Stephen Decatur Button struggles for longevity > more

A Fond Farewell To Paley Library At Temple University

A Fond Farewell To Paley Library At Temple University

May 10, 2019  |  Last Light

Paley Library closed its doors to the public on Thursday after serving Temple University for 53 years. Michael Bixler says goodbye to the mid-century modern library with this photo essay > more