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When Columbia Avenue was Jump Street, and Ridge Avenue was a vital commercial artery that snaked through the heart of North Philly, the neighborhood known as Sharswood was a place where black doctors and teachers provided a middle-class buffer against the scourge of poverty.
That changed in 1969, when the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) completed construction on the Norman Blumberg Apartments, a low-income, high-rise public housing development. The housing project brought with it the kind of impoverishment that was hard to overcome. The middle class soon left the neighborhood, and those who stayed behind watched a once-thriving community become a haven for crime and abandonment.
The projects, and the surrounding community, remained that way for years. Then last year, PHA Executive Director Kelvin Jeremiah
decided to visit the development alone, sans suit and tie. He was appalled. Jeremiah told me in an interview that he was told by brazen criminals during an evening visit to Blumberg that he might be shot if he went to a certain area. I understood what he meant. I’d had the same experience while reporting a story in the shadow of the projects’ high rises.
Jeremiah never forgot that visit, and has spearheaded a recent push to revive the long suffering community by redeveloping the very development that spurred the community’s demise—the Norman Blumberg Apartments.
This week, PHA announced that it has received a 9 percent Low Income Housing Tax Credit award from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency to fund Phase I of a four-step plan to redevelop the Blumberg Apartments and the surrounding community.
The award will allow the agency to raise $12.6 million through private investment and will cover more than 60 percent of the total construction cost of the first phase of redevelopment, estimated at $20.5 million. The City of Philadelphia has also committed $1.5 million to the effort through its Office of Housing and Community Development. The rest will come from a PHA loan of $6.3 million.
The Blumberg Apartments, which consist of three high-rise towers and some low-rise housing, is home to 1,300 residents. Phase I of the redevelopment plan will consist of 57 new construction rental units available to households whose incomes are 60 percent of area median income and below, a PHA spokesman said. The development will be constructed on vacant land on the existing Blumberg site, as well as on vacant properties immediately adjacent to the site.
The development is just the beginning. Two weeks ago, neighborhood groups began meeting with PHA representatives to discuss a plan being funded by a Choice Neighborhoods Planning Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Covering an area that stretches from 27th Street to Ridge Avenue, and from Girard Avenue to Cecil B. Moore Ave., the plan is set to revive a neighborhood that in many ways resembles a war zone. After the planning phase is completed, PHA will apply for a Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant of as much as $30 million to bring the plan to fruition.
Sources say the area’s redevelopment will hinge on the demolition of two of the three Blumberg Towers, and that residents in the Blumberg Towers have been told they will be relocated by 2016. When the towers come down—and there is every indication they will—the community will be opened up to the kind of development that planners and academics have been looking at for some time.
Last year, the University of Pennsylvania School of Design created a study called New Life for Old Schools: Philadelphia School Reuse Studio, in the wake of the closure of 23 schools, including Vaux High and Reynolds Elementary, which both sit in the shadow of the Blumberg Apartments. Penn’s study suggested that a $32-million redevelopment plan could be achieved with PHA as a lead partner, and that such a plan should be done with an eye toward PHA securing a Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant to address the redevelopment of the Blumberg site.
The plan that PHA is implementing seems to be based on that approach. The agency is working with 23 community partners to bring about its plans for the community, a PHA representative told me. Among those entities are Girard College, Project Home and the Brewerytown Sharswood Community Civic Association.
Talmage Belo, 70, president of Brewerytown Sharswood told me in an interview that things are moving rapidly in the community. Developers are knocking on people’s doors. Lawyers are beginning to buzz about. “Honestly, it’s something that scares the bejesus out of me,” Belo said.
And it should. Brewerytown and Francisville, the neighborhoods surrounding Sharswood, are developing rapidly. New construction with higher mortgages is affecting who can buy in those neighborhoods, and some longtime residents in those communities have already been moved out due to rising property values, which spur higher rents. Sharswood, with its close proximity to public transportation and center city, could face a similar fate, especially since 70 percent of the neighborhood’s 6,000 residents are renters, according to Belo.
Still, if gentrification should change the complexion of his community, Belo said, he isn’t concerned, so long as he and others like him can benefit from the transition. The longtime homeowner just wants to live out his twilight years in relative peace and security, he said. Beyond that, he wants to make sure that the mix of government and private funding that is coming into his community doesn’t create a pocket of economic mediocrity.
“We would like affordable housing,” Belo told me. “But we also would like a mix, with market rate housing, as well. Bring in that base, make it happen, and make it stay years from now, so it’s not just a passing phase.”
“I worked for Model Cities,” Belo said, recalling a government program that pumped money into poor communities like his. “When that money went, everything disappeared.”
Belo and residents like him don’t want to see that happen again.
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This version clarifies that higher mortgages on new construction affects new homebuyers, while rising rents due to higher property values affect longtime residents.