Germantown pins renovation hopes on 'Vote Your Main Street' contest

Located at 5801 Germantown Avenue, Parker Hall, which currently serves as a medical office and a museum in Germantown, would be one of the recipients of funds if the neighborhood were to win the national “Vote Your Main Street” competition.

The office building on the corner of Germantown Avenue and East Price Street is easily overlooked: The mural out front is faded. The red bricks are chipped. A large gray sign advertising “Germantown Medical Center” is so dulled and dirtied that if not for an “open” poster hanging in the window, passersby might not know the practice still exists.

Like many storefronts along Germantown Avenue, the three-story building is a stark reminder of better, more prosperous days.

Yet inside is a different picture — especially in the eyes of Althea Hankins. Since the early 2000s, this 64-year-old doctor and Germantown resident has been running a medical practice, a historical museum, a veterans services operation, and more out of the 3,800-square-foot building.

The challenge is that amid all the activity, Hankins’ building is falling apart. One of its main walls is “fractured” and “bulging” and was deemed unsafe by the Department of Licenses and Inspections years ago. The city has pushed for the property to be demolished — though recently the case was continued. And the building is continually sought by developers who “want the spot,” she says, for redevelopment in fast-changing Germantown.

Rather than sell, Hankins wants to repair the structural issues, but to do that, she needs money. With an already thin budget that includes providing low-cost medical care to the community, free meals for veterans, and a free museum dedicated to honoring minorities who served in World War II, Hankins and her small staff simply have not found a way to raise funds.

Until now.

Hankins’ building is part of a national contest that could give her and another business in Germantown tens of thousands of dollars for building repairs. All it takes to win is the online support of Philadelphia-area residents.

Camera icon Jessica Griffin
A view of Germantown Avenue in the Northwest Philadelphia neighborhood. The corridor serves as the area’s main shopping district.

Germantown, located in the Northwest section of Philadelphia, has one of the 25 main streets selected to compete in the “Vote Your Main Street” competition, created by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, American Express, and National Geographic to boost awareness of  the importance of main streets in American communities. Germantown is the only competitor from Pennsylvania or New Jersey. The next-closest nominated communities are the Shaw neighborhood in Washington, D.C., and Bedford–Stuyvesant  in Brooklyn, N.Y.

To win, residents are asked to vote through Oct. 31 at https://www.nationalgeographic.com/voteyourmainstreet/. Participants can vote up to five times a day, every day. In the end, cities with the most votes will receive grants of up to $150,000 each until the contest gives out its designated $2 million.

“We’re trying to excite people, telling them, ‘Why should you vote for us? Because this should be preserved,’ ” Hankins said. “A developer should not be able to come in here and turn this into a condo for them to make money. That kind of urban planning is shortsighted … because if you support an organization like this, instead, people are constantly going to get care long after I’m dead and gone.”

That mentality is one of the reasons the community nominated Germantown in the first place. Earlier this year, the Germantown United Community Development Corp. submitted an application to the “Vote Your Main Street” contest, proposing to preserve two buildings in the neighborhood: Hankins’ building at 5801 Germantown Ave., which is known as Parker Hall, and the John Trower building at 5706 Germantown Ave.

The buildings — both of which were nominated for their significance to the African American community — would divvy up the grant money if Germantown won.

Camera icon Jessica Griffin
The Trower building, 5706 Germantown Ave., is currently home to a restaurant. Trower, a Philadelphia businessman, was regarded as one of the richest black men in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“We knew it was going to be a competition, so we were looking for not just properties in need, but a compelling story to tell,” said Emaleigh Doley, commercial corridor manager at Germantown United Community Development Corp. “There is a lot of black history in the neighborhood that is hiding in the shadows.”

Preserving some of that history in Germantown is more important than ever, Doley said. Like many city neighborhoods, Germantown is quickly changing as blocks of homes are rehabbed and flipped by smaller-scale investors, and local and out-of-town developers tackle bigger projects. In the last year, the median value of a home in the 19144 zip code  — which includes large swaths of Germantown and East Falls — was $136,400, a 15.1 percent increase over the previous year, according to Zillow. The real estate website expects values to rise 5.2 percent more in the next year.

“If you look at Germantown and what it is now, compared to what it was years ago, you don’t even recognize it,” Hankins said.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing for the community. For years, prominent buildings sat vacant in Germantown, Doley said, among them the Germantown YWCA. For years, the empty community center — a place for meeting and learning, and where many learned to swim —  was vulnerable to fires, break-ins, and other problems. Last month, the building was transferred from Philadelphia’s Redevelopment Authority to Pittsburgh-based developer KBK Enterprises. Within six months, the developer hopes to begin construction on 47 units of workforce and market-rate housing, with rent prices ranging from 80 to 115 percent of the area’s median income, though KBK has indicated that some units may be available to residents who make less.

Camera icon Jessica Griffin
A project in the Germantown YWCA, now owned by KBK Enterprises, expects to break ground in six months.

Still, other prominent buildings, including Germantown Town Hall, Germantown High School, and Fulton Elementary School, remain vacant, awaiting activity.

“All of these big properties impact the other,” Doley said. “Something has to happen with one of them for the risk to be taken on the others.”

Until then, Doley said, if Germantown wins a grant, funds will be used to restore the facades of both the Trower building and Parker Hall. The Trower building, currently home to the popular Crab House restaurant, was once owned by prominent businessman John Trower, who is argued to be one of the wealthiest black men of the late 1800s and early 1900s. He used the property for his catering business, which served wealthy families in Germantown. However, within the community, Doley said, little is known about the building’s history.

“The long-term goal is figuring out how to tell that story to current businesses and current customers,” Doley said. “We’ve talked about adding a biography of the building or installing a panel to help.”

As for Hankins’ property, the funds would be used to restore the damaged wall and move her World War II museum — called the ACES Museum — back to the second floor. When the wall cracked and bulged years ago, Hankins had to move her artifacts to spare rooms and hallways just steps from her first-floor medical practice.

Once the wall is fixed, Hankins said, she can restore the third floor of the building, known as Parker Hall. During World War II, the space served as a USO-style cantina for black veterans. Hankins said her hope is to use the space for special events and entertainment.

“With the money, we’re just getting up and running,” Hankins said. “But you never know what’s going to happen at ACES — each time we amp it.”