For years, the Liberty Motel at Germantown Avenue and Westmoreland Street was a magnet for drug use and prostitution in the North Philadelphia neighborhood served by the Lenfest Center, a hub of educational and athletic programming for area teens and children.
Now the center has closed down the motel after buying the property, with plans to redevelop the site as part of a mixed-use project that backers hope will help revitalize the surrounding commercial corridor.
The step represents a bold expansion of the Lenfest Center’s mission of giving local young people a safe place to spend time after school while providing coaching, tutoring and classes to help prepare them for college or good-paying jobs, said Michelle Taylor, a director with North10 Philadelphia, the nonprofit’s community-development arm.
Of particular concern were the health and safety of the students at the pre-K through eighth-grade Mary McLeod Bethune School across the street from the former hotel, a squat beige building. Many of the students attend programs at the Lenfest Center, she said.
“It was like, ‘OK, here’s something we can do quick, fast, in a hurry, to help these people right now,'” Taylor said.
Between early December and the end of February, a Lenfest Center affiliate paid nearly $1.5 million for four properties on the 3200 block of Germantown Avenue that include the motel as well as the Carman Gardens roller-skating rink, once a beloved neighborhood institution, according to records filed with the city.
The nonprofit hopes to acquire other parcels on the block, which would create a 1.4-acre site to build on. The center’s leaders plan to spend months meeting with community members to decide what form development there will take, Taylor said.
The motel had been owned since June 2012 by a Roselle Park, N.J.-based entity called Germantown Liberty LLC, according to records filed with the city. Randhir Maisuria, Germantown Liberty’s sole member, did not respond to a phone message.
The Lenfest Center is led by entrepreneur and philanthropist Chase Lenfest, son of H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, founder of the journalism nonprofit that owns the parent organization of the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com.
Andy Frishkoff, who directs the Philadelphia office of the Local Initiatives Support Corp., a national community-development nonprofit, said that few organizations serving lower income neighborhoods have the wealth to put nuisance properties out of commission by buying them, but that doing so can be more effective than waiting for police or city agencies to address such problems.
“It’s a fascinating and a great model if you’re able to do it,” said Frishkoff, a former economic development official under the city’s Commerce Department who is not involved with the Lenfest Center’s efforts. “It’s not that they couldn’t work around Liberty, but it makes it that much harder.”
The Lenfest Center, located in Hunting Park less than a mile north of the motel, bought and shuttered the business after years of complaints by neighbors who felt they were under siege by the visitors to the inn, who used its rooms as brothels and narcotics dens.
From 2004 to 2014, police responded to more than 1,800 calls at the motel or within a block of it, made 116 arrests for prostitution and 46 arrests for other crimes, and responded to 20 deaths, mostly drug-related, according to data cited in a January 2015 report by NBC10. Philadelphia police were unable to immediately provide updated statistics.
Arletha Pickens, 65, who lives a half-block from the motel on Westmoreland Street, said its drugged-up residents and visitors shouted in the streets at night, urinated and defecated on neighbors’ property, and vandalized homes and vehicles.
Once, she said, a 90-year-old neighbor was beaten and robbed by a woman known to be a prostitute based at the hotel who had helped the elderly neighbor up her stairs and wanted more than the dollar she was offered as thanks.
“It was just unbearable to decent people who were trying to make an honest living and just live day to day, go to work, come home, and try to maintain their properties,” Pickens said, adding that most of the nuisance behavior has dissipated in the weeks since the motel has been shuttered.
Jamina Clay-Dingle, Bethune School’s principal, said her staff sometimes had to find emergency housing for students whose families had brought them to live at the motel.
“They would come out of the motel, and the things they saw in the third grade, in the second grade, I’m not prepared to see at my age, and they lived with this,” she said in a video posted to North10’s website produced during a March meeting with city and state officials about the motel’s closure.
With the motel gone, the surrounding neighborhood’s odds are better for joining in the revitalization that’s been creeping into nearby areas to the benefit of Bethune students, Lenfest Center users, and residents alike, LISC’s Frishkoff said.
Not far away at Broad Street and Erie Avenue, teams are preparing the long-blighted Beury Building for redevelopment, while the Village of Arts and Humanities community organization is helping enliven an area down Germantown Avenue south of Lehigh Avenue with grass-roots cultural programming.
Amelia Price, corridor manager with the Called to Serve Community Development Corp., which works to improve business conditions in the area, said that decommissioning the Liberty Motel has been “a blessing for the community.”
The closure of the motel puts the faded strip of Germantown Avenue that it bookends in good stead to become a more robust commercial district that can serve nearby population magnets, such as the Broad Street subway’s bustling Erie Avenue station, Temple University Hospital and the Shriners Hospital for Children, Price said
“A lot of people were complaining about the Liberty Motel,” she said. “They weren’t coming here because of the drug infestation and all the negativity.”