What's to become of the old Germantown YWCA?

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Local developer Ken Weinstein points out a portrait of Germantown activist Maggie Kuhn, who founded the Gray Panthers movement. The portrait is part of a mural on the side of the dilapidated Germantown YWCA. (RACHEL WISNIEWSKI / Staff Photographer)

The fate of the old Germantown YWCA, a shuttered ruin that now serves only as a symbol of the past, is caught in a dispute over the Northwest Philadelphia neighborhood's future.

A proposal late last year to convert the 100-year-old landmark on Germantown Avenue into low-income senior housing was turned down by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority.

The reason? District Councilwoman Cindy Bass doesn't want subsidized housing at that location.

"There seems to be a little bit of desperation - 'Well, let's take anything that comes along rather than have it torn down,' " Bass said. "One of the things I've been trying to promote . . . is for people to really think what they would like to have on the site."

What Bass would like is market-rate development, whether that is apartments, retail, or a reincarnation of a vibrant community center.

But Ken Weinstein, who partnered with nonprofits Mission First Housing Group and Center in the Park to propose low-income senior housing for the YWCA, said renovation would be too expensive for that use.

The developer and Mission First would renovate the three-story brick building with the assumption they would qualify for Low Income Housing Tax Credits, a lengthy and competitive process. Weinstein also owns the lot next door, on which he is hoping to build housing and shops that would not be subsidized.

Amid fears that the Redevelopment Authority may choose to demolish the building, which is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, neighbors and officials have been meeting to discuss the property's future.

The tension over the plans is in part a result of the recent influx of affordable housing projects in Germantown and at least one controversial project that includes a women's shelter. Some of those projects were also developed by Weinstein.

"A lot of activity is happening in Germantown, but we could use a little balance, because it's not all low-income," said Emaleigh Doley, a community activist.

The city's Department of Licenses and Inspections is expected to issue a report on the building's stability this month. Its most recent report, in 2012, labeled the building "imminently dangerous." Conditions have deteriorated since then.

Many residents want to see the building saved.

"It's an integral part of the fabric of Germantown," said Garlen Capita, president of the Germantown United Community Development Corp. Her group hosted a community meeting Jan. 22 to discuss the YWCA.

The building at 5820 Germantown Ave., for decades a gathering place for local families, was one of the first racially integrated YMCAs. It was shuttered nearly a decade ago when its previous owner, Germantown Settlement, went bankrupt. Arson and vandalism followed.

The Redevelopment Authority foreclosed on the building in 2009. It wasn't until September that a request for proposals was issued, in which the city specified it wanted a developer who would restore the building and offer "nonsubsidized affordable housing units."

The only proposal submitted was from the Weinstein and Mission First Housing Group partnership, which bid the minimum $65,000 and proposed the low-income senior housing. The authority rejected that.

"After consulting with Councilwoman Bass . . . they didn't think affordable housing was ideal for that location," said Brian Abernathy, the authority's executive director.

Bass is able to exercise councilmanic prerogative because she controls the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative money that was offered in the request for proposals - $1 million for restoring the building and $500,000 for demolition work, according to Abernathy. Stabilization of the building is expected to cost at least $3 million.

Until a deal is struck between Bass and a developer she approves of, the building remains a blight in one of the poorer neighborhoods in the city.

Bass said that given Germantown's potential, time is needed to find the right plan for the old Y.

"Land in Germantown, I believe, is becoming more and more valuable as we speak," she said. "Ten years from now, 15 years from now, 20 years from now, it's going to be very different from what you are seeing."


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