Change astir in Port Richmond

RE1BUILD04
Rendering of the affordable townhouses in Port Richmond.

A development of 36 townhouses for low-income residents being built on a vacant lot in Port Richmond is another sign that the neighborhood where people still order "square cheese" and fish pickles out of a barrel is changing.

The development, Grace Townhomes, is being built on the site of a former carpet factory that has been vacant for more than 20 years. It's a joint venture of the Women's Community Revitalization Project and Firm Hope Baptist Church.

The property is bounded by Auburn, William, and Janney Streets and Trenton Avenue. The church is in the 2300 block of East Auburn, a few blocks from the site.

The $12.76 million project, designed by Kramer & Marks architects of Ambler, received a $500,000 grant in 2013 from the Affordable Housing Program of the Home Loan Bank Board of Pittsburgh, with financing by TD Bank, according to the board.

In the spring of 2014, the city Zoning Board of Adjustment approved the project, which had been in the works since late 2011. There was some neighborhood opposition to the project, with a call to turn the site into a playground among the suggestions.

Each townhouse will have its own entrance, washer and dryer, central air conditioning, and an ample floor plan designed to meet the needs of families with children.

All units will be leased, at $450 to $650 a month, to families with incomes at or below 50 percent of the area's median income.

Seven units will be wheelchair-accessible, and two units will be fitted specifically for people with hearing or vision impairments.

Construction is expected to take a year. The homes are expected to be move-in ready by the fall of 2016, said Nora Lictash, executive director of the Women's Community Revitalization Project (WCRP).

"We've taken an abandoned piece of land and will transform it," she said. "This time next year, families will replace blight and have the opportunity to live in beautiful homes they can afford."

WCRP manages the developments it builds - its property-management staff handles leases, rent, and maintenance. It also creates a fund with each of the developments it builds to ensure that low-income families can afford to rent homes.

The organization has a partnership with the Philadelphia Housing Authority that allows it to provide lower rents at some of its developments.

Since 1987, WCRP has built 10 developments in the city comprising 246 homes, at a cost of $53 million.

Before tax abatement brought market-rate and for-profit developers to the city in the 1990s, nonprofits such as WCRP partnered with churches to built affordable housing.

Firm Hope's involvement began as a result of a meeting with State Rep. Michael O'Brien (D., Phila.) to discuss neighborhood blight and involvement of a religious institution to tackle the problem.

"Not only will this new development encourage families to settle here permanently, but we also believe it will lead to spin-off development and be a catalyst for Port Richmond's revival," the Rev. Richard A. Harris, Firm Hope's pastor, said at the Sept. 8 groundbreaking.

Such spin-off activity has already begun.

"Port Richmond is positioned to benefit greatly as the 'next neighborhood' to take off, as it will benefit from the Fishtown explosion," said Chris Somers, owner of Re/Max Access in Northern Liberties, who recently bought a property in the 3100 block of Belgrade Street as an investment opportunity.

"I know more investors are starting to target Port Richmond for both renovation opportunities as well as investments," he said.

Buyers priced out of Fishtown will look to Port Richmond, which has new coffee shops and restaurants - a sure sign of change, Somers said - along with market-rate residential building.

Port Richmond is attracting the younger buyer, and the price point - $75,000 for a three-bedroom rowhouse in good condition - makes it a magnet for first-timers.

"The neighborhood also has a high percentage of homeownership, making it have strong community ties," Somers said.

aheavens@phillynews.com

215-854-2472@alheavens

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