Old + New: An Interview with West Philly Developer German Yakubov

March 8, 2024 | by Kyle Bagenstose

The former Allen B. Rorke mansion and new residential construction in the background at 862 N. 41st Street. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Over the past decade, brothers German and Lev Yakubov have become significant players in West Philadelphia’s bustling development scene. Through their development and property management firm, Haverford Square Properties, the duo now own a litany of buildings across Mantua, Belmont, and Parkside.

The company’s real estate proposals have sometimes drawn public praise and other times resistance. Successful redevelopment of severely dilapidated historic properties like the Allen B. Rorke mansion at 862 N. 41st Street, a Victorian-style mansion listed on the city’s historic register the Yakubovs restored and converted into apartments while also building a new 16-unit structure on the property, has been a boon for preservation.

More recently, the brothers have also proposed converting the historic St. Petri’s Church at 838 N. 42nd Street, also listed on the local register, into 21 one-and two-bedroom units.

But, Haverford Square has also drawn controversy, particularly as their footprint pushed into the Parkside neighborhood. There, neighbors vehemently opposed an original plan to build a six-story apartment building at Belmont and Parkside Avenues, which would block a mural of the Philadelphia Stars, a Black baseball team that played in Parkside during the 1930s. Yakubov offered to relocate the mural across the street, but the development project remains in limbo.

Nearby on Parkside Avenue, the Yakubovs’ efforts to convert a pair of brownstones listed on the local register into multi-family housing have also run up against community opposition.

I spoke with German Yakubov about the origins of Haverford Square, why the company has taken historic properties into its portfolio, its vision for Parkside, and his perspective on community opposition to Haverford’s development proposals there.

St. Petri Evangelical German Lutheran Church at 838 N. 41st Street is currently being converted into apartments by brothers German and Lev Yakubov. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Kyle Bagenstose: Let’s start with a recent project of note: St. Petri Evangelical German Lutheran Church. The German Romanesque Revival church at 42nd and Parrish Streets is on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places and has been a part of the Belmont neighborhood since its construction in 1872. What can you tell us about your proposed redevelopment?

German Yakubov: When we bought it, the interest rates and the economic environment was different than it is today. There’s an original [1872] building. This small, one-story building in the rear we thought was in much better condition than it actually is. We’re actually going to have to go back to the Historical Commission to ask to knock that building down. There was a tree that was growing out of the back that we thought we could save the foundation for, but it’s too far gone to basically salvage that one-story building.

The project was already tight [financially] to begin with, and to do it, while maintaining that original structure, makes it unfeasible. We were going to do an overbuild over that first floor, so we’re just going to have to build a new building in the rear from the ground up. We just got an engineer’s report that supports the building being torn down in the rear.

The [primary 1895 church structure] is going to be the same. I don’t know off the top of my head, but I believe it’s 22 units, a mix of one or two-bedrooms. It’s by right, and we already have a zoning permit for it, but we’re going to need to get it readjusted now. It was in pretty poor shape. We spent like $200,000 replacing the roof and the steeple, so it’s pretty much secured from the elements.

We love preserving the architectural integrity of the neighborhood. And this was an opportunity. The building went up for sale, we didn’t seek it out. It went up on MLS and we bought it.

KB: Let’s rewind to before you and your brother became established West Philly developers. How did you get your start?

GY: We’re originally from Azerbaijan, but we moved to Northeast Philadelphia when I was seven. We grew up in and graduated from Bensalem. Afterward, we moved to the city. Lev went to Drexel and is a mechanical engineer by trade. I went to St. Joe’s, but dropped out.

We grew up just like any other immigrants that kind of came here with not much. While going to college we rented a seven-bedroom house, basically a frat house, on Spring Garden Street. We realized that our landlord bought the house for like $200,000 and we did the math [on monthly rent]. We bought the first house we could afford with $3,000 down. We fixed it up and rented it out to international exchange students. Lev was working as an engineer, and I was working on an IT help desk while we saved for the next house. We used YouTube videos at the time. Whatever it was we figured out how to do it.

At one point I was fired, so I figured I’d just do real estate full time. I got my real estate license, and Lev continued to work. Then we pretty much had enough properties that Lev was able to quit his job. Before you know it we owned pretty much half the block of 3900 Haverford Avenue. Pretty much all of our holdings are mostly in Mantua, Belmont, and Parkside.

One of Haverford Square’s newest projects at 881 N. 40th Street will primarily house veterans. | Photo: Michael Bixler

KB: What projects are you currently working on?

GY: We’re currently finishing up a 42-unit at 881 N. 40th Street. Originally it was going to be geared toward young professionals, but we saw a need for a lot of veterans to have housing. So, we’ve pretty much shifted the market for the building to be focused only on veterans. It’s pretty fully accounted for with people from Veterans Affairs.

In February or March we are presenting for a second time in front of the Civic Design Review committee for 3945 Ogden Street, which is the big parcel behind that building. Initially, it was going to be 120 or 140-units. We have community support, we had an RCO meeting, we have pretty much unanimous support for the project. But after getting some feedback from the CDR, we decided to redesign the building and drop it from seven stories to five, reduce the numbers of units, and incorporate a lot of the feedback.

Ultimately, it’s market-rate housing, but the tenants that tend to occupy tend to be young professionals. That’s the other feedback, because we had mostly one-bedroom units. This one has mostly two-bedroom units because the committee wanted to see something larger that would be geared toward starting families.

KB: A good number of the properties you two have redeveloped or are holding are listed on the City’s historic register or are in designated historic districts. Is that out of some interest in historic buildings or is it just purely business?

 GY: Well, I love historic properties. I love the labor and the detail that existed over 100 years ago that I think should be preserved and restored. I love difficult problems. For me the shining example of this, working with the community to get what we all want, was 862 N. 41st Street. It was a historic mansion and dilapidated beyond repair. We worked with the community to see what they wanted. It was zoned properly, so we were able to work with the Historic Commission to build a brand new 16-unit building on the property, a completely detached building that would complement the existing structure. We put six units in the existing structure, and the building is pretty much back to operation.

Another example is 4204 and 4206 Parkside Avenue. We really didn’t need to do anything outside of the building. We just need to be able to put an additional four units in there that would make the building financially viable to be restored. The neighbors are resistant, whereas the ones in Belmont were much more receptive.

Renovations at 4204 and 4206 Parkside Avenue have stalled due to neighborhood opposition of the single-family homes being converted into multi-unit apartments. | Photo: Michael Bixler

KB: There is a lot of controversy around development in Philly, especially in historically underserved neighborhoods. As you say, some of your projects have garnered public support, others public opposition. Your proposal for a six-story apartment building on the other end of the block from 4204 Parkside Avenue faces local opposition. What’s your perspective on community concerns?

GY: We are really passionate about what we do. I am very vocal. I don’t shy away from controversy. I speak my mind and that doesn’t always make everybody happy. But what tends to happen is people often react based on their lived experience. What ends up happening is some people who have never built a home might have an unrealistic expectation of how much it costs. The desire for what they would like to see built versus the economics that exist on what can be built are in conflict.

Because of that, it’s hard to bring people around. The economics have to be there. Nothing is free. The most that can be charged for an apartment is the most someone is willing to pay. People are willing to pay way more in Rittenhouse Square than they are at the corner of Belmont and Parkside. Because of that, you need more units to basically have the building generate more revenue to pay for the cost of construction. That is the math that sometimes doesn’t translate well to someone who’s passionate about not seeing a larger building. Unless you get government funding or somebody else is paying for it, you have to figure out how to make the building financially self-sustaining.

We own a couple of the big brownstones. We have permits for them, but recently received resistance from neighbors for getting a variance [to rezone them for multi-family]. Nobody’s living in a 10,000-square-foot single home anymore. So 4204 and 4206 Parkside Avenue are kind of an albatross there for us. It’s stalled.

We’ve also had resistance at 4306 Parkside Avenue where we proposed several options. The neighbors didn’t like any of them. We’ve actually paid for the mural to be rebuilt across the street, and that is currently in process. The project is happening regardless.

The Philadelphia Stars Negro League mural was created in 2005 by Mural Arts. Neighbors opposed the redevelopment of the vacant lot at Belmont and Parkside Avenues because new construction would cover the painting. | Photo: Michael Bixler

KB: This is a case of competing visions for what the neighborhood should, and perhaps will, look like. What is your vision?

 GY: The challenge of Parkside… it has huge potential. The problem there is that it’s zoned mostly single family, and getting a variance is difficult these days because the neighbors are just resistant to development. That’s why the only development you’re seeing there now is multifamily projects that were able to get variances. Nobody is building single-family houses there because you can’t sell it.

Some firms have tried building single family houses in East Parkside. On the 3900 block of Pennsgrove there were six or seven single family homes that were built. Maybe they sold one, but had to rent the rest out and take a loss on it. That’s a perfect example of someone who really wanted to succeed, took a gamble, and the market just responded in a way that wasn’t economically favorable. So, you really need that density.

Hidden City attempted to verify the status of new construction on 3900 Pennsgrove. It appears at least three homes have been newly constructed and sold near the corner of 40th Street, although that does not speak to the overall profitability of development.

To be honest, most of Parkside used to be pretty dense. It’s largely vacant now because of homes that were demolished. If you go up and down Leidy Avenue it’s mostly vacant. It’s like farmland.

The neighborhood could use a whole lot of density. It’s in a perfect location. It’s blocks from all the amenities that are typically required in a great neighborhood. You have an entire shopping center that’s within a 10-minute walking distance or bike ride, and its on a beautiful park. I think Parkside has a huge potential, but it’s one of those things. Is it the chicken or the egg? You need to create demand, and the only way to create demand is to have new development there that people want to live in. That hasn’t been the case.


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.

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