OVER OBJECTIONS from a handful of residents of North Philadelphia's Sharswood section, a City Council committee yesterday gave preliminary approval to what is being called the biggest redevelopment project in the history of the Philadelphia Housing Authority.
Even before the rules committee gave its blessing to PHA to raze most of the Norman Blumberg Apartments and acquire through eminent domain 1,330 mostly blighted surrounding properties, the wheels were in motion on the project.
Eminent-domain notices have been mailed to residents, and the feds last week approved the demolition of two Blumberg high-rise apartments, Kelvin Jeremiah, PHA's president and chief executive officer, told the committee members.
"This is the largest and the most significant project that the housing authority has undertaken - ever," said Jeremiah, adding that demolition is slated for September.
Plans call for building 1,200 affordable and market-rate rental units and homeowner units; 500,000 square feet of commercial and retail space, renovated school and recreation centers and new athletic fields.
"We're trying to transform and have the greatest impact . . . Given the level of blight and given the level of vacant and abandoned houses, we didn't want it to be piecemeal," Jeremiah said.
Blumberg, just north of Girard College and south of Oxford Street, was built by PHA in the late 1960s and has long been beset by crime and poverty. Jeremiah noted that the violent-crime rate there is twice that of the rest of the city, 53 percent of its families live in poverty compared to 26 percent for the rest of the city, and just 16 percent of its 635 residents over age 18 are employed.
The 363 families living there are being relocated to other PHA properties, and the residents and businesses in the 73 occupied properties among the 1,330 being condemned will get fair-market value for their properties and relocation assistance, city officials said.
All of the displaced residents will be given preference to move back to Sharswood once the area has been rebuilt, said Brian Abernathy, executive director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority.
The 10 phases of the rebuilding project are expected to take eight to 10 years, city officials told the committee members.
Judith Robinson, a North Philly real-estate broker and one of the most vocal opponents to the plan, said PHA ruined Sharswood by building Blumberg there in the first place, and now should not be trusted to undertake such a large project.
"If I gave you a tour of our community, I guarantee you the blighted, most unmaintained properties and land is what PHA owns now in North Philadelphia," Robinson said in her testimony.
The committee also gave preliminary approval to a development project on North Broad Street adjacent to the shuttered Divine Lorraine Hotel where developers plan to build a $221 million, 750,000-square-foot mixed-use development including a supermarket, 480 apartments in two midrise towers and 30 townhouses.
The now-vacant 4 acres are bounded by Fairmount Avenue, 13th Street and Ridge Avenue. RAL Development Services of New York is the developer.
The project, a "game-changing development" for the area, will create 300 permanent jobs and 1,400 construction jobs, the developer's attorney Matthew McClure told the committee.