Revitalization of a historic YWCA brings hope for more change in Germantown

The historic Germantown YWCA was designed by Louis H. Rush and opened in 1915. Germantown is banking on the development of the historic YWCA to revitalize a stretch of vacant properties in the area.

For Bruce McCall Jr., the Germantown YWCA was the place he learned to swim. For Emaleigh Doley, the place she took gymnastics.

And for the rest of Germantown, the YWCA was the community anchor: a place for meeting, for learning, for friends. In the 1920s, it was a haven for women entering the workforce. By 1946, the first Philadelphia social-service agency to integrate. Years later, as the demographics of Germantown began to change — becoming more of a black neighborhood as white families moved out — the Y was transformed again into a hub for civil rights.

So imagine residents' reaction when their community center fell into disrepair, succumbing to fires, vandals, blight — and failed negotiations to save it. No matter the efforts to reverse its fortunes, it seemed as if the YWCA was destined for demolition. 

But for the first time in more than a decade, a plan might finally stick. The city has hired Columbus, Ohio-based developer KBK Enterprises to transform the YWCA for mixed use, with shops and meeting spaces on the ground floor and as many as 36 apartments — half priced at market-rate and half affordable — on the top three, according to updated plans.

The long-vacant Y's potential rebirth has reignited hope among officials and activists that it also could usher in changes to businesses and homes in the 3.5-square-mile neighborhood. With a handful of prominent structures still sitting empty along Germantown Avenue and at least 4,000 vacant buildings here, many are crossing their fingers for a broader renewal.

“The large vacancies have really plagued blocks of Germantown Avenue and radiated around it,” said Doley, commercial corridor manager at Germantown United Community Development Corp. The vacant buildings "are old, they are white elephants, and it just seems like investors are waiting for something to happen with one before we will see movement with anything else.

“I really feel that this project with KBK Enterprises is ... the beginning of some more significant capital investment that we will see in this area," she said.

KBK, which has offices in Ohio and Pittsburgh, will make its first foray into the Philadelphia market with the YWCA, which the minority-owned company won the rights to in November.

At the time, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority had issued a second request for proposals for the property — a call for bids to revitalize it. KBK was selected over longtime Germantown developer Ken Weinstein who partnered with local nonprofits Mission First Housing Group and Center in the Park, bidding $65,000 for the project.

KBK has not said publicly how much it plans to spend refurbishing the building. According to one executive, the final amount will be determined as soon as an architect completes final plans.

The developer has been tasked with a tall order — and must confront the YWCA’s long and complicated history of political fights and failed efforts. But revitalizing Germantown has never been quick or easy, raising questions among some locals about whether this time will be different — and how much change this project could actually bring.

“They announced in November that KBK was renovating, and we haven’t heard anything since,” said McCall, 36, a Mount Airy resident who spent time in Germantown as a child. “We haven’t even seen drawings, any images. … I find it strange, three or four months later and we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

In some ways, Germantown has staggered over the years, even while remaining a unique community and a transportation hub. Its business district, once vibrant, is not what it once was. Thirty-three percent of its 40,000 residents live in poverty. Nearly 22 percent of homes sit vacant.

Stately single-family homes occupy some stretches of Germantown, while others are defined by blight. According to Realtors, it has long been this way.

“It’s very much a block-by-block community,” said Bill Kratz, managing broker of HomeSmart Realty Advisors. “And what I’m not seeing in all of it is a ton of new construction.”

The strategy, Realtors say, has been to revitalize Germantown by renovating what already exists — a plan that, so far, has prevented gentrification as the neighborhood has slowly improved.

“You want slow, steady growth, and that’s what it has seen,” said Weinstein, a prominent area developer. “If you have explosive growth, that is when neighborhoods tend to gentrify and longtime renters or homeowners get pushed out."

Weinstein created Jumpstart Germantown in 2015 with the goal of mentoring novice developers in how to rehabilitate blighted properties. So far, Jumpstart has graduated 171 participants, lending a total of $2.3 million to complete 22 rehabs.

For the YWCA, KBK has a similar strategy: revitalizing rather than bulldozing.  While retaining the original façade of the 1917 building —the property is on both Philadelphia and national historic registers — KBK plans first-floor commercial and meeting spaces. The top three floors will be one- and two-bedroom rental apartments. No price details have been disclosed.

“KBK’s entry into the Germantown community is one as a new neighbor, putting down roots, establishing new relationships to join in as part of the existing collective efforts to stabilize real estate values and increase economic growth,” said Ismail Abdul-Hamid, vice president and regional director of real estate development at KBK.

Developers and city officials alike hope the revitalization of the YWCA leads to the rehab of other vacant buildings. Currently, Germantown Town Hall, Germantown High School, and Fulton Elementary School sit vacant. In the past, the town hall has been eyed as more potential housing, everything from housing for seniors or veterans to artist studios.

"This affects the vibrancy of the community," said Councilwoman Cindy Bass, who represents Germantown. “We want to have them developed as quickly as possible.

"Having a developer named for the Y has stirred new interest in the town hall building," she noted.

Weinstein owns the seven parcels adjacent to the YWCA and said he would like to develop more mixed-use housing next to the venerable structure.

“When investors and developers see something happening, they want to develop near that," he said. “The development of the Y can only bring good things to Germantown.”

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