Development

A Sinking Feeling: Logan Triangle’s Past Leaves Neighbors Skeptical of New Development Push

December 28, 2023 | by Kyle Bagenstose

Logan Triangle in North Philadelphia is a poster child for dangerous real estate development and negligent neighborhood displacement. | Photo: Michael Bixler

In the two months since the City announced the release of a new Request for Proposals (RFP) to develop Logan Triangle, one of the most notoriously blighted areas in Philadelphia, a bevy of reporters have called up Charlene Samuels, chairperson for the Logan Civic Association, to get community perspective. With more than a hint of exasperation in her voice, she tells them all a version of the same thing: “Just sit and wait and see.” And also: “Hope and pray.”

That is what it has come down to in Logan, where the sins of a century past and decades of unkept promises have left residents skeptical anything good will come of the roughly 40-acre eyesore, which drags down the name of a neighborhood many are otherwise proud to live in.

At this point, the story of Logan Triangle has been told many times. In the early 20th century, a stretch of the Wingohocking Creek in the Logan section of North Philadelphia was covered up and converted into a sewer. Developers then filled the valley with up to 40 feet of coal ash and cinder in order to grade the site and build dense housing. The charade lasted less than 50 years until gas lines started to explode and homes began sinking into the earth. The issue also came to a head just after the neighborhood’s demographics had shifted heavily toward African American families.

In the end, more than $30 million of taxpayer money was spent to buy out and raze nearly 1,000 homes. The land has since been left cracked open like a wound, festering with dumped garbage, weeds, and crumbling concrete.

The psychic wound remains just as gaping. “This is environmental racism,” Samuels said. “If we were a different complexion of people, would this be happening? I just don’t understand it. Why would anyone allow this to be happening?”

An abandoned and vandalized 18 wheeler has sat at the corner of 10th and Courtland Streets since 2019. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The land is currently owned by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA). In November, the agency released an RFP that, in a perfect world, could deliver a solution. The City has asked prospective developers to submit proposals for what they would do with the land, with no tax abatements or other financial costs borne by the City. Proposals would also be required to adhere to community-oriented guidelines developed over the past decade. The submission deadline is January 11, and the City hopes to announce a selection by the end of February.

However, few, if any, think development is likely to happen under the current circumstances. Mohamed Rushdy, a local real estate developer, chooses his words carefully. As a recent appointee to the board of the Philadelphia Land Bank, Rushdy now has influence in many places. Yet, he freely offers disbelief that any developer is going to put forth a working proposal for Logan Triangle without any economic incentives. “I looked at the RFP and thought, ‘ Well, OK, I am not sure there is going to be a humongous response, if any,’” Rushdy said. “Just because of how large it is, and what’s needed to make it pencil out, especially in a tight credit environment. It needs money to be developed.”

For those who have spent a lot of time working on the issue, it is hard to even summon the energy to read the details of the RFP. Just eight years ago, the City released a similar RFP and selected a developer in the Goldenberg Group, which this year walked away without ever breaking ground on redevelopment. Samuels said that leaves recent redevelopments feeling like déjà vu and neighbors disengaged.

Scott Quitel, a professor of social entrepreneurship at Drexel University who has spent considerable time in the neighborhood engaging with community members about a potential future of the site, is of a similar mindset. “This is one of the biggest sins of the city,” Quitel said. “There is so much hopelessness.” And yet, he can’t help but wonder if there is at least a sliver of potential that the future could hold better things for the site, if only everyone involved can bring themselves to suspend disbelief and hit reset. He is still actively speaking to those in his network to see what potential positive outcomes could still be achieved.

“I know residents are exasperated from all these promises that weren’t kept over the years,” Quitel said. “But what if we could make believe none of that ever happened and say here we are in the year 2024. What is the site telling us, what are the possibilities? And give the neighborhood as close to 100 percent as possible, an understanding about the site and what the possibilities are.”

A Buried Past

Stenton at 4601 N 18th Street in Logan. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The development of what is now the Logan section of the city stretches back more than three centuries when James Logan, Pennsylvania’s Colonial Secretary and contemporary of Benjamin Franklin, assembled about 500 acres of land in the area to establish a plantation positioned between Philadelphia and Germantown. He named the plantation “Stenton,” which remains the name of the Georgian-style mansion still standing today after its construction in 1730. In addition to housing his family, Logan also kept slaves and indentured servants on the property.

The estate then passed down through six generations of the Logan family until the City took ownership of the mansion in 1909. By then, it was clear the Logan family had already divested much of the estate’s acreage. An 1875 atlas of Philadelphia shows the surrounding blocks subdivided and developed.

In the area of the present day Logan Triangle, east of Broad Street at its intersection with Wyoming Avenue, the 1875 map shows large tracts of land owned by other well-to-do Philadelphians such as Joanna Wharton Lippincott and Harriet De Benneville Keim. Running through the lands from west to east was the Wingohocking Creek, a major tributary of Frankford Creek that stretches from present day Mt. Airy to Juniata.

Further transformation would arrive in the decades that followed. By 1910, an updated atlas shows the Wingohocking had disappeared from the maps, as it had been encapsulated and turned into a sewer. The lands had also changed hands. Much of the modern day Logan Triangle was now in possession of the Realty Development Company.

The Wolf Brothers

Wingohocking Creek and North Penn. Railroad running through Logan in the mid-1800s. Map detail from Samuel L. Smedley, Philadelphia Atlas, 1862. | Image courtesy of Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network

The covering of the Wingohocking set the table for the original sin of Logan Triangle. At that time there was an outfit known as Wolf Brothers & Co. in Philadelphia. Its membership included brothers Benjamin, Louis, Albert, Edwin, and senior member Clarence, whom an 1899 Philadelphia Times article states was “widely known in financial circles.”

The Realty Development Company, historical records show, was owned by one or more brothers of the Wolf family. An April 1912 Philadelphia Inquirer article names Edwin Wolf as president of the company. Additional coverage from around that time shows the company was buying up large tracts of land from the Wharton Lippincott and De Benneville estates.

According to a chapter from Utility Cars of Philadelphia, a 1971 book by author Harold Cox posted online by Philadelphia Water Department historian Adam Levine, by that time the Wolf brothers had bought up at least 80 acres of land along the new Torresdale (now Roosevelt) Boulevard in the vicinity of Logan. According to Cox’s research, the boulevard had been built up on an embankment to carry it across the Wingohocking.

With the creek’s encapsulation came a new opportunity to fill, grade, and further develop the area. “It was estimated that it would take about 500,000 cubic yards of material to fill the depression at a cost of about $425,000,” Cox wrote. “The new owner, Clarence Wolf, however had other ideas.”

In the early 1900s ash cars like this one on Race Street would transport ash and cinder to Logan where the loads would be dumped into the Wingohocking Creek to fill in the waterway for future development. | Photo courtesy of Philly H2O

Wolf had a wide range of political and business connections. He served as financial advisor to former Mayor John Reyburn. He leveraged this connection to become a board member of the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company (PRT), the predecessor to SEPTA. Wolf was also a major stockholder of the PRT, wrote Cox.

Even more, William Benson, chief of the Bureau of Highways and Street Cleaning for the City, and George Stearns, director of Public Works, had previously worked for Clarence Wolf. These bureaucrats initiated a sequence of events in which contracts were issued to PRT to haul waste ash via streetcars from the city’s core to a dump in what is now Logan.

“Curiously enough, the dump used by PRT was the Wolf lands on the boulevard,” Cox wrote. “The Philadelphia Record also found it curious that the dump caught fire at frequent intervals. The fire department was called out to douse the blaze and, incidentally, help compact the fill. It also thought that the decision of the City to open 9th Street through the middle of the lands in question was one coincidence too many.”

A Doomed Neighborhood

The aftermath of a gas explosion on Roosevelt Boulevard in 1959. | Photos courtesy of PhillyHistory.org

With the scheme complete, homes would now be built atop these shaky grounds. Records from the time suggest it was done piecemeal. An October 1913 Philadelphia Inquirer article reported that Charles A. Mahon had purchased a plot of land making up a small portion of the modern day triangle from the Realty Development Company and planned to build 20 homes on it. Future articles stated a builder named Daniel Crawford, Jr. made a significant development play in the area. It is unclear how much these builders knew about the fill used to grade the area, but, within a generation, problems emerged.

According to an article written by Ken Finkel for the PhillyHistory Blog, on Halloween Eve 1959, a series of three explosions rocked homes on West Roosevelt Boulevard within the modern day triangle. “Six-and-a-half feet under the east side of 9th Street, a 30-inch gas main developed a crack,” Finkel wrote. “Gas seeped into underground pockets and went undetected until five homes about 25 feet away: 819, 821, 823, 825, and 827 West Roosevelt Boulevard were racked by three explosions that shook the neighborhood and set fire to the houses.”

Although no one was killed, at least one resident was hospitalized and several others were knocked to the floor or violently driven from their homes by fire and smoke. The incident was buried until a more infamous set of explosions shook the neighborhood once again in 1986. At that point, conditions had proliferated so badly that neighbors in Logan approached Mayor W. Wilson Goode and demanded that the city solve the problem.

A OCF Realty blog post from 2011 recalls what happened next: “The City commissioned a geotechnical study of the location by Lippincott Engineering Associates that determined that this place was doomed. A nonprofit organization was created to take on the herculean task of relocating the residents of the 933 buildings included in the study. Purchase and demolition of the structures took yearly 20 years and $33 million.”

Lost Trust

Detail of J. M. Brewer’s redlining map of Philadelphia from 1934 showing Logan and the Triangle at 9th and Wyoming Streets as populated primarily by Jewish residents as represented by the color blue. | Image courtesy of Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network

Inseparable from current discussions about the land are additional historical developments. For many current residents of Logan, a predominantly African American neighborhood, racial considerations are inescapable. An infamous 1934 map of the city by J.M. Brewer shows Black neighborhoods literally in red lines, while Jewish neighborhoods received blue and Italian neighborhoods green. “J.M. Brewer, owner of a real estate company called Property Services, rated Philadelphia neighborhoods based on the age and value of the housing stock, types of businesses, access to amenities, and, most notably, the ‘racial concentrations’ within each area,” wrote Amy Cohen for Hidden City. “Areas color-coded to indicate a substantial presence of these groups were deemed high risks for investment or mortgages.”

The 1934 map shows much of the current day Logan Triangle color coded blue for its Jewish population, whose historical presence in the neighborhood was retold by writer Roseanne Skirble for Tablet magazine. “Records from Beth Sholom, Logan’s first synagogue, refer to the neighborhood as the ‘suburbs,’” Skirble wrote. “It starts to fill up with Jewish families and remains predominately Jewish from the 1920s through the 1950s.”

Skirble described the Logan of that era alive with a rich tapestry of Jewish life. But she quotes Michael Schatz, a Jewish educator and historian of Jewish Philadelphia, as stating that many families still “had an eye on a little piece of land or a newer bigger house in the suburbs,” and most had moved out by the time of Logan’s reckoning in the 1980s.

An exterior view of homes sinking in Logan in 1979. | Photo courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

Replaced largely by African American residents, with a sizable Latino community as well, newer residents like Samuels can’t help but wonder what was known at the time homes began to be sold in large numbers to Black families.

“I could be wrong, but my perception is that they knew those houses were sinking then,” she said. “But they allowed Black people to move into those houses. And even then when they did report that they felt their houses were sinking, they were not listened to.”

After the explosions precipitated the buyout program, past and former residents say additional injustices followed. Samuels said she believes homeowners weren’t adequately compensated. In 2022, former Logan resident Keshler Thibert wrote of his family’s experiences in the neighborhood for Hidden City and provided an accounting of the wounds still felt today. “A current resident, who did not want to be named, stated, ‘If you didn’t want to go, they would 302 you.’ The 302 label refers to being involuntary committed after being deemed a danger to oneself due to having mental health issues. ‘After a few days, they looked in on you during a welfare check. If you said yes, then they handed you over, but only after you paid back any dues to the City.’ The neighbor went on to state that, in a few cases, families were not left with enough money to help with the move. In some cases, they were relocated to homes in worse shape than their original location. This process would continue until the early 2010s,” Thibert reported.

What’s Next for Logan Triangle?

A 2015 rendering of a proposed youth basketball center to be built on Logan Triangle. | Image courtesy of Philadelphia Youth Basketball

In 2013, the now-defunct Logan CDC received a neighborhood planning grant from the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation. Three years later, in conjunction with the PRA, a resulting 154-page report was issued providing a comprehensive plan for the entire neighborhood, including a significant reimagining of the Logan Triangle.

According to the report and its review of available engineering assessments, the grounds of the 48-acre Logan Triangle are most unstable in the center of its mass where dumped ash runs 40 feet deep or more. But the edges of the Triangle are significantly shallower and more stable. As such, a trio of plans were developed to promote mixed use development along its edges and allowing varying scales of open space in its core.

By the time the report was released, the City had already selected development firm Goldenberg Group to redevelop the land, according to a PlanPhilly article from 2015 by Jared Brey. “‘First of all, I want to say I know the City has been absent for too long,'” Brian Abernathy, former executive director of the PRA, said at the time. “‘I know we haven’t served your community well over the last 30 years, and I apologize for that.'”

But the promises to Logan once again dissipated. Earlier this year, news broke that the Goldenberg Group was walking away from development plans, which included a basketball recreation center and library. The City is now back to square one as it seeks another developer.

Exactly what could come next is anyone’s guess. Miguel Pando, a professor of geotechnical engineering at Drexel University, said that, in a vacuum, anything could be built on the site. Engineering techniques such as driving foundation piles down to bedrock to support slab construction could theoretically support even heavy development on currently unstable portions. “Engineering-wise, we can do anything,” said Pando. “We have a tunnel connecting England to France.” But, of course, Pando remarked, engineering solutions cost money, and the costs rise the deeper you have to go dig.

A 2016 rendering of The Goldenberg Group’s tentative plans for Logan Triangle. The firm has since pulled out of the project. | Image courtesy of The Goldenberg Group

Rushdy said he has heard whispers about calculations that show adding deep piles to support development could add $20,000 to $30,000 in extra costs per unit. Mathematically, if 900 homes were built to roughly replace the housing stock there previously, that adds up to $27 million of extra costs.

For these reasons, Rushdy thinks the City or State will have to generate some kind of substantial economic incentive to make a deal work. Given his profession as a real estate developer, Rushdy thinks mixed-use residential is  a good option for the site, particularly if the land was subdivided to entice smaller outfits instead of trying to find one single investment whale with enough capacity to take on the entire project. But, he said, the community should ultimately be consulted on what comes next.

Quitel agrees. With a background in ecological restoration, Quitel promotes a more passive use, where much of the land of Logan Triangle would be devoted to well-lit and smartly-designed open space and given time to heal. “The site is telling you what it wants to be,” Quitel said, adding that sinkholes are still actively developing.

Asked what she’d like to see, Samuels was blasé. Sure, a new state-of-the-art school to help with current overcrowding would be nice or affordable housing for the city’s seniors and economically disadvantaged residents. Yet, it is hard for her to believe anything is going to come to pass given the entirety of the history of Logan Triangle. Like Rushdy, she too thinks nothing will get done without significant public investment and wonders why the City hasn’t been putting any money away over the past three decades to help right a major wrong it was complicit in a century ago. “When will the Logan community be made whole? And that’s whole with a W (not just an H),” Samuels says. “It’s just not right.”



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About the Author

Kyle Bagenstose is an independent journalist based in East Mt. Airy. Previously with USA Today, he writes primarily about environmental and urban topics.

4 Comments:

  1. John J Snyder says:

    My old neighborhood. This is the most comprehensive reporting I’ve seen so far. Great work. I think it all ought to be reforested.

  2. Edward W. Duffy says:

    Perfect location for the ’76ers’ Arena! The extra cost of sitework required here would just be a rounding error on such a large project. BTW, the Wells Fargo Arena is also built on pilings. When the Boulevard Subway is built, it could have its own stop, “Harris Blitzer Station.”

    You’re welcome!

  3. David La Fontaine says:

    Great and fascinating report. But I have a question: Wasn’t coal ash used to level land and fill in former creeks across the city? Was its use in Logan paricularly gargantuan, poorly designed or unique in some way?

  4. Rita Poley says:

    Great article – one mistake – Beth Sholom was not the first synagogue in Logan. It came much later after the little “shtibels” and after Beth Judah of Logan. So sad. I remember my friends homes where you could roll a marble across the floor without even touching it. The floors were so slanted. But it was a lovely place to grow up in “way back when”!

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