Germantown Boys & Girls Club Compromise Brings Peace To Penn Street

 

Germantown Boys and Girls Club at 23-25 W. Penn Street has been a neighborhood battleground over historic preservation for over two years. Today all stakeholders involved have came to a compromise at a special meeting held by the Philadelphia Historical Commission. | Photo: Bradley Maule

On Tuesday, October 9 the Philadelphia Historical Commission held a special meeting to review the nomination for historic designation of the Germantown Boys and Girls Club at 23-25 W. Penn Street. The meeting lasted just under ten minutes and held an unexpected, but welcomed outcome: peaceable compromise between stakeholders.

After the meeting was called to order and introductions made the property owner’s attorney, Jerald Goodman, announced that an official agreement between the nominators, architectural historian Oscar Beisert and the Penn Knox Neighborhood Association (PKNA), and the property owners, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Philadelphia (BGCP), had been reached.

The agreement, a result of discussions between involved parties and the Historical Commission, stipulates that both the nomination and the demolition permit for 23-25 W. Penn Street will be withdrawn. BGCP will instead pursue adaptive reuse of the structure and, per procedure outlined in the agreement, will consult the nominators on any future modifications made to the exterior.

The cornerstone of the Germantown Boys’ Club being laid in March 1909. Photograph by Marriot C. Morris. | Image courtesy of the Germantown Historical Society.

The battle over historic designation of the Georgian Revival clubhouse has been drawn out and, at times, quite heated. For over two years, tensions around the potential redevelopment of the property have been strained. The situation has stirred up deep-seated feelings about ownership, access, and racism among neighborhood residents. Those in favor of BGCP’s decisions were concerned that designation would restrict the club’s ability to develop the property in accordance with their mission. At the time, this included demolishing the existing structure to build a new $20 million facility and ice-skating rink, expected to be an important new asset to the community.

Others, including the nominators, preservation activists, and other community groups, argued that an alternative site would be more suitable for the proposed development and that the existing building could be repurposed and incorporated into a different plan. Neighbors also worried that the proposed plan would create traffic issues along W. Penn Street, which is a narrow one-way residential street.

At the culmination of a contentious Historical Commission meeting in May 2017, where the nomination was up for review and several passionate arguments on both sides of the issue were presented, the vote was postponed and it was suggested by Jonathan Farnham, executive director of the Historical Commission, that the issue might warrant a special meeting. 

Discussions at an Historical Commission meeting last June hinted at a potential agreement. After more than a year of community meetings and attempts at reaching some amicable accord, both parties presented an update on their progress. With the hockey and ice-skating rink removed from their master plan, the BGCP discussed a scaled-down project that put adaptive reuse of the historic building back on the table.

At this morning’s meeting, consensus to accept the agreement was swift and unanimous among Historic Commission members. In a brief discussion before the vote, the body seemed to agree that the move represented an important compromise for all parties. Some small, logistical details were cited regarding the process of how exactly the demolition permit will be withdrawn and how the agreement will be carried out moving forward.

A 2015 rendering of a new $20 million facility and ice-skating rink funded by Comcast that would have replaced the original building. | Image: Comcast

Per the conditions of the agreement, the property owners will preserve the exterior of the building, and all exterior changes will be subject to consultation by the nominators. Any changes submitted to L&I will first be reviewed by the nominators. It is understood that BGCP will also pursue additional new development on the site.

The move represents a somewhat encouraging step in a preservation environment where compromise is all too foreign, though an unusual one in entrusting oversight and enforcement of preservation standards to a local neighborhood association. The logistics of how the Agreement is maintained, upheld, and enforced between the two parties remains to be seen.

Patrick Grossi, director of advocacy for the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, told Hidden City Daily that “after years of meetings, stalled starts, and intense negotiation, the Preservation Alliance is relieved that a workable compromise could be reached and that this deserving property will be preserved. We’re also happy to advise the consultation process if and when Boys and Girls Clubs of Philadelphia is ready to move forward with plans, and assuming our assistance is requested by Penn Knox neighbors.”

According to a report published by PlanPhilly, some are left wondering why the Commission would so readily shirk their duty to vote on the designation of property, which would give them the legal authority to review changes and enforce regulation. Why instead agree to outsource regulation and enforcement to a volunteer-based group?

While the answer to that question remains unclear, BGCP’s reluctance to have the property listed on the register appears to attest to the fact that designation at the City level, and subsequent regulation by the Commission, is viewed as an overwhelming burden to property owners. Considering that Philadelphia offers virtually no local incentives that reward owners properties that are listed on the local register, perhaps it’s a point that should be taken to heart.

For now, at least, the 120-year-old Germantown Boys and Girls Club is safe from demolition.

About the author

Starr Herr-Cardillo is a staff writer for Hidden City Daily. She was born and raised in Tucson, Arizona and is a graduate of University of Pennsylvania's historic preservation program. Herr-Cardillo was drawn to the field by a deep affinity for adobe and vernacular architecture. She is gradually being won over by Philadelphia's overwhelming historic building stock and cloudier climate.



5 Comments


  1. Thanks for a nice write-up Starr. Here’s a follow-up thought. You write: “designation at the City level, and subsequent regulation by the Commission, is viewed as an overwhelming burden to property owners.” Does the Historical Commission itself believe this? If not, why do its staff and commissioners so seldom challenge the assertion? If so, has the agency reached the conclusion that designation is itself a “hardship”? That seems to be the gist of recent proceedings, but it circumvents the process for determining financial hardship outlined in the PHC’s rules and regulations.

  2. “The logistics of how the Agreement is maintained, upheld, and enforced between the two parties remains to be seen.”

    “For now, at least, the 120-year-old Germantown Boys and Girls Club is safe from demolition.”

    After considering the facts as characterized in this article, I have real reservations about this outcome. Frankly, my perspective is that BGCP made this agreement because they view the consequences of failing to comply as being easier to deal with.

    The purpose of the Philadelphia Historic Commission is to regulate. The dimunition of that regulatory authority, by essentially outsourcing responsibilty to a third party with fewer resources of expertise and funding than the Commission, is a dangerous precedent. What happens if, at some point in the future, BGCP moves to violate the agreement and the neighborhood coalition lacks the capacity to respond at that time?

    It’s pretty simple, really, and goes to the core principal of why historic preservation is important. It’s a judgement that there is a communal good in maintaining the intangible, intrinsic value that a particular building contributes to the public viewshed. Organizations like the Historic Commission were created to maintain that value. With this agreement, however, the City of Philadelphia has started down the path of dejure abandonment of maintaining the value associated with historic preservation.

    • Very well said. The passive stance that the Commission has adopted in recent years is very frustrating and disappointing. They are the stewards of our built environment; it’s astounding at times at how little they are willing to stretch to fill that role.

  3. It appears to be the neighbors were not happy with the ice skating rink and the parking situation that would have made parking difficult. Thus, the ice skating rink was deleted from the plans and the 120 year old building preserved with facilities for a gym and classrooms under consideration. They would have been better off building the new facilities in a suburban locale where there would be plenty of parking and highway access to facilitate traffic.

  4. Sue Pattersonm Chair, Penn Knox Neighborhood Association

    To correct multiple points in this article that persist in print:

    1) The original plans for this project (which the Boys and Girls club have steadfastly tried to hide from the public for two years, even still), were for a 75,000 sf facility on a 86,000 sf site, of which 8% of the site is the existing building. This plan would have included demolition of the PAL Center (another excellent Philadelphia program for youth). It would remove a beloved soccer field used by the Germantown Soccer Club for kids. The field has also been used for the Germantown Friends School lower school for the past 100 years, in exchange for the cost of maintaining it. Both uses occur when the Boys and Girls Club is closed. And the plan would have involved a takeover of a parking lot that was part of a zoning agreement for a residential high rise across the street, which also houses a social service program for the city. In other words, it wasn’t all about ‘parking’, or traffic.

    2) The original funding for this project was a state RACP grant (our tax dollars), which requires a 50/50 match. We were told Comcast was going to provide that match, and due to the timing, the arrangement appeared to ‘sweeten the deal’ for Comcast getting the contract with the city for Internet services. The community was never notified of the RACP grant application (a requirement, for public comment), and it is a community development grant, not a social services grant. Therefore, we attempted to ask the question – “If one were to insert 22 million dollars into Germantown, is this the best place for it, that wouldn’t involve removing the well-used soccer field, demolishing the PAL Center and the existing historic building, and taking the already committed parking lot?”

    3) To answer that question, we explored all parcels of land in Germantown that would fit either an entire new facility, or half of it – the ice hockey rink. We found 10 parcels that answered that question best. Three were parks, given that there is already precedent for ice hockey facilities in city parks, and the residents near Wister Woods were very interested in the possibility of an ice hockey rink nearby. The other was the Germantown High site, which had the potential to inject direction into that stagnant site, and create a ‘kids corridor’, across Vernon Park to the Germantown Life Enrichment Center = a true community development conversation. Did anyone listen to us? No, and in fact this development conversation was spun as ‘racism’, with the assistance of our own Councilperson and some of her staff. No one ever tried to block new construction, or a new project, but we did want to save our historic resources in the process, and the building is NOT in bad enough shape to demolish (confirmed by an engineer we hired who specializes in historic structures, and L and I). Rosita Youngblood was the only public official willing to listen to this larger development conversation, because she understands the rational for the application of RACP funding.

    4) The ice hockey rink would have been the only rink in town with operational costs not covered by the City. Without the city energy discount, energy costs to run the ice hockey rink would be $130,000-$150,000/year, without including staff, or maintenance, or the expenses for rest of the building. The stormwater bill for a 75,000 sf facility would also have been massive. Our argument has steadfastly been – why would an organization whose mission is child care, actively seek such a financial burden to add to fundraising efforts, for all time, while simultaneously paying child care staff only $12-13/hour? In a city of such great need, with many equally deserving social service programs for children competing for the same dollars, it made zero financial sense. We also figured that eventually the City would get asked to take over the maintenance cost, and the City can’t afford that either. There is another City ice hockey rink 10 minutes from this site. Our recommendation was to hire another staff person and drive the BGC kids who want to play hockey over to that rink. Cheaper solution, does not duplicate resources, and provides another local job.

    5) 75,000 sf of the project site is zoned residential. The Boys and Girls Club CEO and their lawyers constantly tried every trick in the book to get us to sign a contract that could be waived at the zoning board saying we had agreed to letting them build whatever they want, while simultaneously changing the plans the community was shown three different times, and never fully committing to a final plan. Even the last day of negotiations they tried to slip in a deed into the contract for a parcel that was not the building in question, to quietly invalidate the contract. When caught, they agreed to use only a deed map, calling the deed ‘illegible’. Despite the honorable history of the Boys and Girls Club legacy, our negotiations with current leadership were toxic, misleading, and full of lies to the public, at great cost to our community. And the reporters comment is correct – maintaining a contract of this kind for historic preservation and development by a volunteer community organization is unprecedented, costly, inappropriate, and needlessly burdensome.

    6) At the Historical Commission hearing, three regular members could not attend, one sent a substitute, and two members were new. So, if we hadn’t aggressively negotiated for a contract, a historical designation conversation and decision would have been made by a committee that nearly half was unfamiliar with either the nomination merits, or the larger conversation I’ve just described. To that end, the Historical Commission process is truly flawed, too prone to political manipulation, and should be changed. The Commission has just as much authority to be lenient on meeting preservation and rehab requirements for a non-profit once a property is historically designated, as it does to insist that a volunteer community organization must negotiate a contract instead of designation, and this is what should have happened. We profoundly appreciate the negotiation assistance from Rosita Youngblood and her staff, and the Preservation Alliance, and gratefully accept any future assistance from them, and the Planning Commission Civic Design Review process, for this project moving forward.

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