Could a North Philadelphia community center end up as a gas station?

With five tennis courts, the Althea Gibson community center opened in 2003 at 10th and Girard and closed 10 years later. The current owner bought the site for $1.5 million in 2014 and hopes to build a mini-mart, gas station, and cafe there, but opposition is strong.

No one had seen anything like it when the Althea Gibson community center opened at 10th and Girard in 2003. Named after the first black athlete to win a Grand Slam tennis title, the North Philadelphia facility was modeled on suburban tennis clubs and boasted five professional courts, two of them indoors. Players could pick up a can of fresh tennis balls in the pro shop before their games and shower afterward in the deluxe locker room.

The Althea Gibson Community Education and Tennis Center was the brainchild of Bronal Harris, an African American philanthropist who believed urban children should have access to the same amenities as their suburban peers. Although the center was never formally part of Philadelphia’s recreation network, it was built on public land and financed with more than $2 million in government and foundation money. Running the community center was a labor of love that she hoped would produce the next Serena Williams.

Instead, the nonprofit center has ended up in the hands of a private developer with a very different vision from the one Harris promoted. He wants to turn the tennis courts into a gas station.

The owner, Michael Alhadad, purchased the tennis center for $1.5 million in 2014 and is  forging ahead with plans for the development, which includes a mini-mart and cafe. Because the site is  zoned as residential, Alhadad plans to seek a variance from the Zoning Board on Feb. 28. Yet there are lingering concerns about the sale of the community center and what its privatization means for the future of this important Girard Avenue site. The boulevard already has too many automobile-centric uses that keep it from realizing its potential as a walkable commercial street.

Alhadad, who has built student housing near Temple University, told me he thought the gas station “would be a perfect match” for Girard Avenue.

No one else seems to think so. The main West Poplar neighborhood group is vehemently opposed to the project. So is the city’s planning director, Anne Fadullon.

But Alhadad may face an even bigger stumbling block: When the Redevelopment Authority sold the property to Harris for a dollar, it restricted its use to civic purposes until 2026, according to Fadullon. She should know. As a planner at the authority, she was the one who arranged the transfer in 2001. Fadullon said she was surprised that Alhadad was seeking a variance for a gas station.

Meanwhile, there are questions about the transfer of the property. In 2009, Harris sold the tennis club for $400,000 to another nonprofit, called Olympia Real Estate. After the transfer, she continued to operate the community center for several more years, until finally shutting it down in 2013. The next  year, Olympia sold the property to Alhadad. Bronal Harris died in 2015.

Though  Harris was never precluded from selling the land, the $400,000 from her sale to Olympia was supposed to be plowed back into the nonprofit community center. It’s not clear whether the money was spent on the tennis club. 

It's also not clear what happened to the $1.5 million Alhadad paid, because the the sale was not recorded on Olympia’s tax records in either 2014 or 2015. No board members were listed on the filings.  The name of  Olympia’s president, George Banks, appears on the deed, but my attempts to find him were unsuccessful.

Regardless of these curious transactions, few in the neighborhood hold out any expectation that the facility can be revived as a community center, said Diane Monroe, head of the 14th Ward Democratic Executive Committee, which serves as the official neighborhood association. Even before Harris’ death, she struggled to raise the money needed to keep the tennis center going.

As admirable as Harris’ goals for the center were, it was hampered by the neighborhood's lack of density, and by the flawed planning policies of the 1990s.

Eager to revive the blighted West Poplar neighborhood, the city razed a vast tract of land east of Broad Street, between Fairmount and Girard Avenues. Although the area is within walking distance of downtown and has excellent transit access, West Poplar was laid out as a suburban-style development of single-family and twin homes set back on small front lawns. There is a “village green” and a cul-de-sac called Cambridge Mall. Everyone has a private driveway. The tennis center was seen as the capstone of the development.

At the time, that low-density strategy was lauded as a new approach to urban renewal, one that would help struggling cities stem their population losses. Instead of building high-rise public housing geared to renters, the city sold West Poplar’s modest, brick-faced homes at subsidized prices to buyers.

In some respects, West Poplar has been a success. Thanks to the high rate of ownership, it remains a stable, well-kept community. The area around it has blossomed with new, private development, including the stunningly renovated Divine Lorraine hotel on Broad Street. Builders are scrambling to find vacant lots for infill housing. In the late '90s, Fadullon told me, no one anticipated that Philadelphia’s core would undergo  such a dramatic comeback.

Because of the lack of density in the surrounding West Poplar neighborhood, she acknowledged, it hasn't been able to support retail on its stretch of Girard Avenue, between the SEPTA viaduct at Eighth and Broad Streets. Those blocks have devolved into a highway strip dotted with one-story shopping centers. One reason Monroe’s group objected to Alhadad’s proposal is that  there are already three gas stations between Broad and Sixth. It’s a dead zone that is hostile to pedestrians.

The contrast with other parts of Girard Avenue are dramatic. Venture a few blocks east to Fishtown, or west to Brewerytown, and you will discover lively, walkable blocks of small shops and restaurants. Both those neighborhoods revived organically and retain their traditional, dense rowhouse blocks.

What has happened to Girard Avenue is, in many ways, a reflection of the city’s conflicting attitudes about density over the years.

At the same time the city was fostering low-density housing in West Poplar, it was simultaneously looking for ways to boost business on Girard Avenue. In 2004, the city hired a nonprofit consultant, LISC, to come up with a strategy to make the street more walkable and shore up traditional urban retail. A year later, SEPTA reinstated the Route 15 trolley, which runs on Girard Avenue and links the Market-Frankford El to the subway.

In an effort to spark development, the district councilman, Darrell Clarke, is  preparing to introduce a bill that would upzone several parcels -- including the tennis club -- for commercial use. The change makes sense generally. Though  Alhadad won’t be able to construct a gas station under the new CMX-2 zoning, the goal is to prevent him from building something equally low-density, such as a shopping center. 

For Girard Avenue to become a truly pedestrian-friendly street, city planners need to demand denser development -- both commercial and residential. Too much public money has already been poured into Harris’ community center to let this key property undermine the neighborhood’s future.

 Note: This column was updated for clarity.

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