WATCH: The Blumberg Towers Demolition This Weekend
Video | Philadelphia Housing Authority
Now that two of the three Norman Blumberg Apartments towers have returned to the dust from whence they rose, with the low-rise buildings surrounding them also headed there, it’s time once again to take stock of the goals the Philadelphia Housing Authority has set for its ambitious effort to reshape the neighborhood, whether they line up with what the neighborhood would like to see, and whether the PHA can deliver either what it wants or what the neighborhood wants, especially now that everyone’s attention is finally focused on what may be the most ambitious project the PHA has undertaken in decades.
As everyone follows the PHA’s actions from this point forward, three questions should be kept uppermost in mind:
- Is the PHA singing from the same songbook as everyone else who worked on the Sharswood neighborhood transformation plan?
The guiding document for what’s going on in Sharswood is the Sharswood/Blumberg Choice Neighborhoods Transformation Plan (PDF), developed by representatives of nearly 50 partner organizations, including 11 city agencies, SEPTA, two banks, a supermarket operator and the neighborhood’s civic association, along with individual residents of the neighborhood and the Blumberg project. The plan’s “Global Community Vision” calls for Sharswood to “evolve to be a thriving, prosperous, self-reliant community grounded in health and wellness, alternative resources, quality education, career planning, recreation, and employment for generations to come.”
The plan has three components: a neighborhood component, a people component and a housing component. It’s the housing component that’s become the source of controversy. The third goal of the housing plan is to both replace the demolished Blumberg housing units and stimulate private redevelopment of the neighborhood’s many vacant homes and lots. That private developers were beginning to present plans before the neighborhood’s zoning review group, the Brewerytown-Sharswood Community Civic Association (BSCCA), shows that private investment was once again beginning to flow into the neighborhood, however tentatively. Does the PHA’s seizure of some 1,200 parcels of land and buildings at the neighborhood’s heart in order mainly to meet the housing plan’s fourth goal (“create affordable homeownership opportunities”) advance or thwart the third goal? Neighborhood critics across the political spectrum fear it will do the latter.
- Can the PHA actually redevelop all the land it’s taking by itself?
Residents of Sharswood and other neighborhoods who testified before City Council at hearings last summer on the PHA’s land grab expressed serious doubts that the agency could deliver on what it has promised for the neighborhood. One prominent Sharswood critic, Judith Robinson, said the agency was “horribly managed,” and a West Philadelphia resident noted that promises made by the PHA 15 years earlier that tenants would be able to own property have yet to be fulfilled. As of now, the PHA has funding in hand to complete only the first phase of a 10-phase plan that will span about a decade. That phase will build new, lower-density housing units on the Blumberg site. In a 2014 Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed, PHA President and CEO Kelvin Jeremiah pledged his agency would commit $2oo million towards revitalizing Sharswood and leverage an additional $250 million through public-private partnerships, but none of this money has been raised, nor sources identified, yet. That raises the very real possibility that Sharswood residents will wind up as disappointed as that West Philly resident is now 15 years hence.
- And will the PHA’s plan really deconcentrate poverty?
In a letter to the editor that ran in the Inquirer last year, Jeremiah claimed that critics of the PHA’s plan to make more than 80 percent of the units it seeks to have developed on the land it’s taking affordable housing are “missing something.” To be specific, he said this plan would “deconcentrate poverty by demolishing and replacing every Blumberg unit with less-dense affordable housing.” The total number of affordable units the PHA says it plans to build, however, is about twice the number that were elimiated when most of the Blumberg project was demolished. Less dense this new affordable housing may be, but when it dominates the neighborhood to the extent it will, it’s not deconcentrating poverty, no matter how one describes it.
The head of the BSCCA is also on record as saying that he at least would like to have private developers and investors play a role in creating a truly mixed-income community in Sharswood. At present, it looks as though they will play a marginal role at best. The PHA now has the power to change that if it so desires. A similar PHA demolition in Hawthorne in the 1990s served as a spark plug that ignited a wave of private redevelopment around a less-dense replacement project. It could happen again here if the PHA would let it, but whether that will actually happen is very much an open question, and the answers coming from the PHA so far are less than encouraging.