North Philadelphia station is something city-dwellers are pretty much accustomed to, but for guests traveling to our fair city, it can be a culture shock.
Alongside the Regional Rail line side towers a dilapidated giant brick warehouse, known as the Ink Factory building. In the parking lot, you might see from your train a fresh pile of dumped tires. Need to transfer from the Regional Rail to the Amtrak side? Just traverse a secret overgrown footpath, littered with broken glass and decaying scraps of wood.
And yet, a group of New York developers wants to invest $162 million into the site. A proposal put forward by "North District LLC" – a group consisting of financiers from HFZ Capital and Arete Group, with minority shares held by Merchant Equity Group and Amtrak – want to bring new residential and retail developments to the station, clean up the train tracks, and possibly even revitalize the Ink Factory. The group's proposal is scheduled to go before Philadelphia's Civic Design Review board on March 5.
"It's a really important location in Philadelphia, it always was," said Drexel University design professor Harris Steinberg after reviewing the project's latest planning documents. "For better or worse, what people see of Philadelphia when they come through on the train is the post-industrial landscape of North Philadelphia. This is an opportunity to put a new front door on that experience."
About 100 community members were hoping to hear from the developers about the project at a community meeting on Feb. 28 at the Philadelphia Ahmadiyya Society's new Baitul Afaiyat mosque at Broad and Glenwood. But just as the presentation was getting underway, a power outage struck, and the whole meeting had to be canceled, said Rafiyq Friend, the mosque's internal affairs secretary.
The meeting will get rescheduled soon, but from preliminary conversations, residents already seem concerned about what impact the project will have on their lives, he said.
"They're really anxious about it all, want to know what's going on and who's gonna benefit. That's the mood I got in the room," Friend said. "It was the standard questions ... Will there be any minority contractors? Will there be any minority businesses? How much reinvestment in the community? Those questions were all out there. We don't want to just put buildings in North Philadelphia. The area is demographically the most impoverished in the city."
According to one recent study, North Philadelphia had a poverty rate of about 45 percent and the area is badly in need of investment in many forms. But a project like this one could help catalyze more investment, Steinberg remarked. The new mosque just opened in October. Joe Frazier's Gym around the corner may be occupied by a furniture store for now, but it's on the National Register of Historic Places and remains a local landmark.
"We look forward to working on this project with developers and community stakeholders who are interested in working with neighbors to come up with something that accommodates the community at large," City Councilwoman Cindy Bass, whose 8th District encompasses the project said via email of the project. "My office supports things that the community wants in the neighborhood. I always tell communities that they don’t have to have anything they don’t want in their neighborhoods. Any questions or concerns my office has will be based around the questions or concerns raised by community members."
North District LLC's proposal calls for redevelopment of North Philadelphia Station, formerly known as the Germantown Junction, which has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1999. (A SEPTA spokeswoman said they would "support any project that brings more riders to our system.")
The station and its area would get new green space, a reopened pedestrian tunnel linking the Regional Rail and Amtrak stations to the Broad Street Line, a repurposed Ink Factory with "maker spaces," co-working, a rooftop deck and market hall inside, and the main attraction: a 300-foot-wide, six story residential building with ground-floor retail, just north of the station at Broad and Indiana, according to a project summary submitted to the city.
The project got a thumbs-up in a January 2018 report undertaken by the Urban Land Institute on behalf of Philly city planners, which found it has "great potential" as long as it maintains strong community engagement.
"If you could bring in something that's gonna aesthetically build the community and actually going to empower the community by employing people, allowing them to participate in the commercial aspect of it, I think that those things would benefit the community," Friend said.
It wouldn't be the first time a developer has tried to spruce up this area. A $7 million shopping center was opened outside the station in the late '90s. It still has commercial tenants including Gamestop and Cricket, but a central attraction, a Pathmark grocery store, went out of business years ago and remains vacant.
Steinberg said North District LLC's overall design gets "a passing mark," but also credited the developers for aspiring to revitalize a hub of "connectivity" which he said is known as a "holy grail" to public-transit minded planners.
"Its not necessarily great architecture and its not great urbanism, but its a start. ... The real question is would it stimulate further investment or growth," Steinberg said of the proposal. "With the proximity to the station and all the other assets, it is kind of a sleeping giant ... It will ultimately become the backbone of a revitalized North Philadelphia, whether its this project, the next one, or five projects down the line. This shows movement in the right direction."