In the long and rich history of Southwest Philadelphia, one of the bleakest chapters involves a 22-acre parcel on which the Bartram Village public housing development now sits.
What once was Lenape land, then home to Swedes and wealthy colonialist landowners, then a bustling corner of industrialized America, is now a prime example of American inequity. Cut off physically and economically from much of the city, Bartam Village’s 1,000 residents and 450 households have a median income of just $8,876. 68 percent of residents are unemployed. 96 percent are African American. Everyone rents.
First constructed for defense industry workers in 1942, the housing stock–uniform, three-story, boxy brick buildings–is heavily dated and dilapidated. It’s the kind of development that Kelvin Jeremiah, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Housing Authority [PHA], says was designed for “warehousing the poor,” a term he borrows from sociologists describing the traditional American approach to public housing.
“We have concentrated poverty at locations that are oftentimes the most undesirable locations in any community,” Jeremiah said. “It gives rise, oftentimes, to indices of social pathology at heightened levels: high crime, high unemployment, high dropout rates, poor health, poor quality housing.”
But Jeremiah and a large collection of Philadelphians are working to rewrite the story. This summer they received an advance any author would prize: a $50 million federal grant from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD], which Jeremiah said will anchor a complete redevelopment of Bartram Village in the years ahead. To put the figure in perspective, Jeremiah pointed out the annual capital budget for the PHA across all its properties in the entire city is an equivalent $55 million. “This is very unusual and why it’s such a coveted grant,” said Jeremiah.
Leveraging an additional $225 million in capital from various local, state, federal, and private sources, a phased redevelopment will begin next spring. Ryan Bailey, senior developer for Pennrose, the lead private developer on the project, said it will then take an anticipated eight years until full completion.
But when it’s done, Bailey claims it will be the product of a brand new vision for public housing in Philadelphia and the country at large. Beyond simply focusing on housing, two new prongs will be added: people and neighborhood. That means building in hard and soft infrastructure to attract mixed income residents, developing mixed use buildings, creating better access to public transportation and green spaces, and boosting educational and career opportunities.
“The word ‘holistic’ is overused sometimes,” Bailey said. “But that really is the idea, to not just demolish and build housing, but to connect it to existing supportive services and make it feel more like a community instead of just a place to live.”
From Lenape to Lodging
In a 208-page visioning document, Center City-based design firm WRT goes into deep detail on the proposed redevelopment of Bartram Village. Among the information is a nod to the past.
The Kingsessing neighborhood in which the community sits is among Philadelphia’s oldest, the document’s history section points out. Natives “treasured the rich soil” along the Schuylkill River and gave Kingsessing its name: “the place where there is a meadow.” Swedes officially settled a township by that name in 1644. In 1728, John Bartram purchased a tract and established the nation’s first botanical gardens, drawing visitors such as Ben Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson to the Schuylkill River’s western banks.
Much of the surrounding area became devoted to similar country estates or farmland, including Andrew Hamiton’s Woodlands estate. This agrarian ambiance would persist until the late 19th century, when the area began to industrialize along with many U.S. cities, particularly along waterways. Estates were subdivided for industrial and residential uses, especially as the electric streetcar arrived in 1894 and improved commute times to other areas of the city.
“[The area] soon became home to heavy industry including oil refining, manufacturing, distribution, and waste management,” the WRT report states. “As the riverfront slowly changed from green to industrial, waves of Irish, German, Lithuanian, Polish, Italian and Jewish immigrants settled nearby, forming a thriving working-class neighborhood.”
In 1942, land was acquired directly adjacent to Bartram’s Garden for the creation of Bartram Village, purpose-built to house workers in the defense industry as World War II raged. In 1958, city records show, it was sold to the PHA, a divestment Jeremiah said was common for the Department of Defense to make in the 1940s and 1950s.
However, Jeremiah said in retrospect, such housing stock does not lend itself well to a permanent residential community. “It’s barracks-style housing… one way in and one way out,” Jeremiah explained. “It doesn’t work for our contemporary living environment.”
Worsening the problem was the nationwide trend of deindustrialization in the latter half of the 20th century, hollowing out local jobs and communities in Southwest Philadelphia. Even still, the neighborhood served as an important place for new immigrants, both domestic and foreign, to land over that time. That includes the family of Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, of the city’s 3rd District, who grew up in Kingsessing. Gauthier’s father and his family lived in Bartram Village for a time, and her mother immigrated to Kingsessing from the Carribean when she was a teenager. “It has existed as a place where people can find affordable housing in Southwest Philly,” Gauthier says.
But residents dream of something better for the community. Gauthier said in addition to job loss, residents of Kingsessing often feel cutoff from and forgotten by the rest of the city. Undesirable land uses like landfills and illegal dumping grounds, along with rusting industrial parcels, pierce the psyche. “Overall, it gives people a sense of this part of the city as not cared for,” Gauthier said. “That’s why this grant is so important.”
Experts say the future of Bartram Village and adjacent areas will be informed by past shortcomings. The origins of modern day public housing lie in the New Deal era and the 1937 passage of the United States Housing Act. By the 1940s and 1950s, developments like Bartram Village were springing up. “Affordable housing was just built by HUD and they ran it and that was the show,” said Bailey at Pennrose.
Then in 1986 came the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, which opened the door for for-profit companies to enter the arena. That drew in outfits like Pennrose, which previously had dabbled primarily in private adaptive reuse projects. Over time, HUD became more focused on providing funds to tear down dilapidated properties and building new ones, but that still primarily just focused on housing stock, Bailey said.
The big change came with the Obama administration’s creation of the Choice Neighborhoods program, a competitive grant program to reward cities developing creative, holistic plans to transform low-income public housing developments into vibrant, economically diverse communities.
Jeremiah, who arrived at PHA in 2013, said the philosophy mirrors the City’s, enabling the authority to become a national leader in obtaining grants through the program. In addition to the $50 million grant for Bartram Village, the City in 2014 received a $30 million grant for revitalization in North Central Philadelphia and in 2020 another $30 million for the Sharswood-Blumberg plan. These add up to a $110 million total that no other city can claim, which Jeremiah attributes to an authority-wide commitment to transformation and ability to coordinate among various stakeholders at all levels of government. “Folks from all over the country [have visited] to look at what we’re doing here,” Jeremiah said.
On paper, the redevelopment plans for Bartram Village look completely transformational. The community will go from 500 to more than 600 units, while also diversifying economically. The new development will include 500 subsidized rental units, 78 market rate rentals, and 30 homes for sale. Bailey said that will provide for an economically diverse mix of residents, while, Jeremiah added, it will give residents a sense of upward mobility and opportunity for some to stay in the neighborhood even after gaining the ability to move from renting to buying. Bailey said the building stock will also be mixed-use.
“Right now there’s nowhere to go buy anything, no convenience stores, no job training, none of those kinds of amenities on the site,” Bailey said. “We’ll be able to not only create a diversity of incomes, but a diversity of buildings. We’ll have townhouses, multi-family buildings, senior-only buildings, community buildings, and buildings that have first-floor retail in them to add amenities to the neighborhood.”
Connectivity is also a priority. Bartram Village sits immediately adjacent to a premiere green space in Philadelphia, Bartram’s Garden, but lacks connectivity as the properties are separated by a railway, with busy Lindbergh Boulevard also boxing in the neighborhood from the west.
Maitreyi Roy, executive director at Bartram’s Garden, says the park has been prioritizing increased visitation from nearby neighborhoods in recent years, primarily through offering attractive programming. She said there is still a lot of untapped potential, such as giving more neighbors the ability to grow their own healthy foods at an on-site farm. But, accessibility remains a hurdle.
Bartram’s Garden was involved in a years-long public planning process ahead of the redevelopment. Roy said there are ideas in the plans to increase connectivity between the two parcels. Perhaps most promising is an idea to restore a pedestrian rail bridge that crosses from Bartram Village right into the heart of the gardens. Roy said funding options are currently being explored. “We participated in the planning to create that more seamless interaction between the garden and the housing development, so that people can bike or walk in the garden more easily,” Roy said.
Improving access to public transportation and job centers is another stated priority. Plans call for traffic calming measures, improved bike lanes, and safer and more comfortable trolley stops at 54th Street and Lindbergh Boulevard and 56th Street and Elmwood Avenue. Gauthier said not only will that improve access to Center City working destinations, but also mesh with separate City initiatives to build out life sciences and manufacturing hubs in Southwest Philly.
Construction planning is in advanced stages. The redevelopment will use a phased approach, starting with the construction of 56 new units on currently undeveloped land south of 57th Street. Planners said that using this phased approach should minimize the number of current residents who have to relocate fully off-site during the redevelopment, which multiple stakeholders agree would likely present the greatest potential disruption to residents.
Bailey and Jeremiah said every current resident will be given the opportunity to remain in or return to Bartram Village. Gauthier said she believes the planning process and redevelopment have organically taken such community concerns into account. “Obviously construction is always inconvenient. I don’t think there’s a way around that,” said Gauthier. “But I do think that a thoughtful approach is being taken to relocate people on-site.”