Philadelphia Wants to Remedy an Urban Renewal Failure – Next City

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Philadelphia Wants to Remedy an Urban Renewal Failure

In the Eastwick neighborhood, the city will have to navigate community engagement, competing plans and climate change.

Story by Jared BreyTwitter

Photography by Joshua Albert

Published on Jun 5, 2017

On a Friday morning in March, I met Terry Williams in the parking lot of a strip mall in Eastwick, Philadelphia’s southwesternmost neighborhood. It was snowing, but Williams, the former president of Eastwick Friends and Neighbors Coalition, was dressed lightly, in a denim jacket and a baseball cap bearing the emblem of John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, one of the jewels of the neighborhood.

“I’m gonna get you back to the 35 acres where our movement actually began,” Williams said, after inviting me into his van.

By land area, Eastwick is one of the biggest neighborhoods in Philadelphia, and it’s not easily walkable. Lindbergh Boulevard, a main thoroughfare, is eight lanes wide, in parts. Williams had agreed to give me a tour and show me a bit of what was built in the middle of the 20th century — when the neighborhood was the target of the biggest urban renewal plan in the U.S. — and what was left undone.

After a brief detour into the Heinz refuge — “This was my Huckleberry Finn-type experience. Me and my buddies, we explored all of this,” Williams said — we pulled into one of a handful of planned developments in the neighborhood. A block or so in, the modest, suburban-style homes with yards and driveways disappeared. A few streets and culs-de-sac are cut into the wild grass and weeds, but the houses planned for the site were never built. It looks like work stopped in the middle of the night, many decades ago.

In 2012, Philadelphia developer Korman Residential, which owned options on much of the land dating back to the urban renewal era, proposed building more than 700 apartments on the site. The area was intended for single-family housing, but soon enough there was a bill in City Council to rezone 35 acres for multifamily use. Residents rallied against the plan.

Opposed to new multifamily development, and wary of any building that could exacerbate the already challenging flooding and environmental issues, they packed a City Council hearing. Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who represents Eastwick and was not then even a year into his tenure on council, pulled the bill.

It may have seemed like a routine zoning fight at the time, but opposition to the proposal marshalled a range of interests in the neighborhood. Eastwick Friends and Neighbors Coalition, which Williams led for four years as president, formed in its wake. A few years later, Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority officials negotiated a deal to buy back Korman’s options on 135 acres of undeveloped land for about $5 million, and promised to work with residents to create a vision for the property’s future. That process is playing out now, and it’s requiring the city and residents to navigate the complexities of community-driven development and climate change planning, as well as grapple with how officials can make amends for the worst blunders of the urban renewal era.

“People have been asking me, what do you think it’s going to come up with? What do you think those steps are going to be?” Greg Heller, who became director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority in 2016, told me in May, after the first of a series of community meetings. (Heller is also a contributor to Next City and a Next City Vanguard.) “And I’m just not — the responsible thing is to let this process play out, to get the information from the consultant team, to synthesize that information, and then figure out our next steps after that. This site has been a challenge for the community since the ’60s. We can wait another nine months to get to the end of this process to do the responsible thing.”

Ripping Up a Model of Integration

In the early 20th century, Eastwick was a collection of smaller rural communities known variously as Elmwood, The Meadows, the Lowlands, Tinicum, Little Holland and Clearview, names that still echo in parts of the neighborhood. From the very earliest developments in the area, which is bound on one side by the Schuylkill River and has two creeks, drainage was an issue; as far back as 1725, the Pennsylvania state legislature voted to allow landowners to build dikes to guard against flooding. Historically a marshland, today, most of the neighborhood still lies within the 100-year floodplain.

Despite these environmental challenges, Williams and others who lived in the area prior to urban renewal remember it as a proudly integrated place.

“A beautiful, integrated community,” Williams said. “Very vibrant. Gypsies, European Jews, Italians, Irish, Asians, African-Americans, all living in harmony. Not any racial problems. However, the government, in their wisdom, decided to end all of that through the redevelopment program of the ’50s.”

In 1950, Philadelphia officials certified the area as blighted, allowing them to embark on a plan to create a “city within a city” in Eastwick. In keeping with the urban renewal practices of the time, the plan involved large-scale eminent domain. Despite widespread opposition to the condemnation scheme among Eastwick residents, officials pushed ahead, and in 1958, the plan called for 60,000 residents in 12,000 new homes. They were cheered on in newspaper editorials as bold visionaries with the tools and capability to remake cities for the better.

“The Eastwick redevelopment could be a showpiece for those who worry about the deterioration of cities, a proud example of how to put them back together,” read an editorial in The Bulletin in 1957.

Some storefronts in Penrose Plaza remain vacant, but some new development is underway.

In his study of Eastwick, “Liberal Ends Through Illiberal Means,” historian Guian McKee wrote that city officials had every intention of promoting integration in the new Eastwick while redeveloping the physical surroundings of the neighborhood and dedicating large portions of land for industrial uses. But, McKee concluded, “The pursuit of these goals brought an attendant element of tragic irony, as the project required the destruction of the area’s unique existing community, which, unlike most of Philadelphia during this period, was already racially integrated.”

Between 1940 and 1970, in the targeted area of Eastwick, the population dropped by two-thirds, from 3,625 to 1,126, according to data collected by Interface Studio, the firm that’s been hired to help create the new plan. In the same period, the proportion of white and black residents roughly reversed. In 1940, the area was roughly two-thirds white and one-third black; by 1970, it was 75 percent black and 20 percent white.

Korman, the city’s partner in the midcentury redevelopment, did build many low- and middle-income units, spreading them out in low-slung buildings. But “New Eastwick” never lived up to the hopes of its envisioners. Today, you can still see a few remaining holdouts of Old Eastwick, a moniker residents still use, century-old houses surrounded by vacancy where the government condemned and demolished hundreds of homes.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” Williams said. We were sitting in a McDonald’s on Lindbergh Boulevard after our tour in March. He had driven me past a house where the local black doctor had kept his office, and an old corner store that the coalition is hoping to have preserved, and a handful of public school properties that are now closed. “The Eastwick community was so vibrant back in the ’40s and the ’50s. If they had invested in the infrastructure of the community, you would have, I think, [a] model, integrated community. It was like a melting pot.”

Mindy Fullilove, a psychiatrist and author of the book “Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It,” knows this urban renewal legacy well. That’s why Interface Studio tapped her as a subcontractor and has brought in her group, University of Orange, to help structure the community engagement process in Eastwick.

“You know, it’s an ecosystem, right?” Fullilove said to me in March, referring to neighborhoods affected by blight declarations, eminent domain and teardowns. “You rip up an ecosystem like that and it affects everything.”

One Neighborhood, Many Ideas

Eastwick residents are now being asked to think about the future of a few key vacant sites. They include not just the property where Korman was hoping to build back in 2012, but also two empty properties owned by the School District of Philadelphia. In all, 190 acres of land are on the table.

At a press conference in January, the PRA’s Heller announced the beginning of the new planning process for Eastwick, and said that the goal was to find uses that are palatable to neighbors and viable from an environmental, market and geotechnical perspective. That day, he also introduced a steering committee composed of community members, business leaders and representatives of various city agencies, including Councilman Johnson’s office. Terry Williams is serving as chair.

Philadelphia-headquartered planning firm Interface Studio, which won a request for proposals for planning work in the study area, has been working to gather information about the environmental risks on the various properties. Eastwick is adjacent to two Superfund sites, in addition to being prone to flooding. The firm is performing a market study to help set expectations about development. Residential, for example, might be advantageous because of the area’s proximity to jobs and transit, said Scott Page, the firm’s founder, but disadvantageous because of flooding threats and the cost of insurance. Interface is looking at open space and traffic calming possibilities too.

The Redevelopment Authority has budgeted around $250,000 for the planning and community engagement process. The Philadelphia International Airport, which is adjacent to Eastwick and has shown interest in expanding in some unspecified way, is kicking in half the cost. In April, the steering committee held the first of five community meetings in the neighborhood. The sanctuary at St. Paul A.M.E. Church, one of the only churches remaining from before urban renewal, was packed — overflowing, in fact. In another room, a long table was laid out with a 20th-century Eastwick timeline, on which residents were invited to add important milestones.

Terry Williams, the former president of Eastwick Friends and Neighbors Coalition, is chairing a committee on the new planning process for Eastwick.

“My heart is full of gratitude to see you here,” Williams said. “Never in the history of Eastwick has this community had an opportunity to plan its future. If you know anything about Eastwick, you know about all of the difficulties and all the challenges — environmentally, socially, and politically — that this community has experienced. However, the train is now leaving the station as far as the future. You can clap for that.”

Much of the room clapped. But as the meeting wore on, it became clear that crafting a truly community-driven vision will be a tough road. There isn’t just one perspective in Eastwick. A variety of groups have specific interests of their own, and not all of their goals overlap. There are plenty of homeowners with a stake too. As of the 2010 census, 60 percent of the area’s homes were owner-occupied, with 40 percent rentals.

When presenters shared the results of a survey conducted by Eastwick Friends and Neighbors Coalition (EFNC) — 45 percent of respondents said the environment was their highest priority for improving Eastwick, followed by 27 percent who said it was community development — a number of attendees raised their voices to say they hadn’t been invited to participate.

After the official presentations ended, three members of a group called Eastwick United stood up in the front, commandeered the microphone, and said that they didn’t trust the process the city had created or the airport’s intentions. Several of their supporters held homemade signs in the pews: “Vocational training,” “Own, Build, Manage,” and “No airport expansion” were among them. Eastwick United has its own plan for development on some of the sites, which it shared with various officials in 2015. Fairly detailed, it includes everything from senior housing and workforce development to a vision for new educational uses at the closed school properties and restoration of the so-called sinking homes in the Town Gardens section of the neighborhood.

“Here’s what’s happening,” Tyrone Beverly, of Eastwick United, told me after the meeting. “We’re just telling them, don’t pick winners and losers. [EFNC] is only a four-year-old organization. I’ve been working around here for 35 years.”

An attendee at the steering committee's first community meeting holds a sign listing priorities for the neighborhood. 

Later, outside the sanctuary, Eastwick resident Paula Jackson said she was in favor of another plan, put forward by First Baptist Church of Paschall, to buy one of the closed school properties from the District and relocate its church there. The pastor, Eric Simmons, later told me that he had taken steps to purchase the property, and even spent $12,000 for design services, before the city decided it should be included in the area-wide planning process. (His story has gotten some coverage in the local news.)

For his part, Terry Williams told me over the phone a few weeks after the meeting that EFNC had been the group that challenged Korman and instigated the process that got the city to buy back the land, which is why it is at the center of the current planning effort. He was glad the other groups had attended the meeting and spoken up, he said, and added that EFNC’s only interest is in fostering an open and transparent process that brings everyone to the table.

“I believe that the community groups that are out there, they are all passionate about the neighborhood that they live in,” Councilman Johnson said in May. “They’re all long-term residents. They all knew each other before they knew me. They knew each other before I even came along, and I believe that now we’re just going through a process of everyone getting on the same page. But I’m optimistic that eventually, on those acres of land, we will have a project that will be to the satisfaction of the residents that live in Eastwick.”

Amy Laura Cahn, an attorney who’s been helping EFNC since its inception and author of the study “On Retiring Blight as Policy and Making Eastwick Whole,” acknowledged that competing factions are inherent in all neighborhoods, especially those as big and complicated as Eastwick. But she said putting residents’ interests and concerns at the center of the process is fundamental, and undertakings like the one happening in Eastwick are critical.

Eastwick isn’t the only sign that the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority is willing to take on emotionally charged projects and the wounds of bad planning. In North Philadelphia’s Logan, PRA has contracted with a developer to rebuild on a triangle of land where hundreds of homes were built on unstable soil then taken by eminent domain and demolished, leaving the parcel vacant for decades. And it began a process last year to rehab a row of houses destroyed in 1985 when the city firebombed a home of black liberation group MOVE amid a standoff with police. The homes were poorly rebuilt by a PRA contractor.

“I think the lessons learned from urban renewal is that you have to work with people and not work for people,” said Brian Abernathy, a former PRA director who’s now a deputy managing director in Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration. “We have to respond to them, and we have to respond honestly. It’s not just about placating people to make them go away. It’s about having an honest dialogue about, what can we do? What is realistic? What is practical?”

“You know, it’s an ecosystem, right? You rip up an ecosystem like that and it affects everything.”

Whatever comes of the planning process in Eastwick is likely to include a range of uses, said Scott Page, of Interface, simply because there’s so much land at stake. And key to the entire process will be managing development in light of the threats of climate change and the predictions of sea level rise. An airport spokeswoman wouldn’t specify what the airport might have in mind for the sites, saying only that they want to hear the community’s ideas first. A proposal to add an Amtrak stop at the airport could also have ripple effects on development in Eastwick. If residents’ development goals wind up clashing with other considerations, who wins?

In the last decade, Philadelphia has experienced a modest recovery from the population losses of the 20th century, and the economy is showing increasing signs of vibrancy. All that has made it possible to start thinking about healing some of the city’s most challenged areas. Abernathy said that there are some individuals in the city who still question the return on investment for such efforts. But he thinks that addressing these problems now is at least partly a way of keeping them from becoming impediments to the city’s future growth.

The planning process, officially called the Lower Eastwick Public Land Strategy, is expected to wrap up sometime in the fall, after several more meetings and roundtables, with a presentation and report from Interface. After that, it will still be PRA’s land to develop as it sees fit.

The programs carried out in the name of urban renewal destroyed communities and harmed individuals in ways that are still just starting to be understood. Fullilove, who centered a chapter of “Root Shock” around a man who grew up in Eastwick, said the work happening there is a crucial step in building that understanding.

“Place … means something other than yourself that you connect to. Place is an object of our attachment,” Fullilove explained. She added that during the consulting phase, she’ll be emphasizing everything from that type of healing to more tangible concerns, such as sea level rise and awareness about neighborhood ecology. “Some of these problems are in every neighborhood. Not every neighborhood has all of them. But Eastwick then becomes the key neighborhood to work in, because if you solve the problems in Eastwick then you can solve the problems in all the other neighborhoods. So it’s essential learning. It’s a place to really grapple with, how do we do this? All the challenges of Philadelphia are there.”

This article is part of Next City's Philly in Flux series made possible with the support of the William Penn Foundation.

Jared Brey is a freelance reporter based in Philadelphia. His work has been featured in Philadelphia magazine, PlanPhilly, Hidden City, The Philadelphia Inquirer, City & State, Grid magazine, and other publications.

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