PHA complex is neighbor to luxury homes

A new-look public housing development adjoins Hilltop at Falls Ridge in East Falls.

Posted: June 08, 2007

When the Schuylkill Falls towers were demolished back in 1996, the promise was that the dilapidated, oversized housing project would be replaced with a viable, mixed-income community.

Now, at long last, the promise is on the verge of being fulfilled.

Tomorrow morning in East Falls, dignitaries including Gov. Rendell and Mayor Street are to gather to cut the ribbon on the final element of the package:

A private, market-rate development - featuring a number of large and expensive homes - sitting right next to public housing.

In terms of making this possible, it helps that the public housing in question has the look and feel of a modern, suburban, middle-class neighborhood.

"I must say that I was skeptical that the mix would work," said Arthur McDowell, president of the East Falls Community Council. "I wondered why people who could pay big money for a house would want to live next to public housing.

"But the public housing they're going to be living next to isn't the public housing that used to be. And the site is a very nice location."

Hilltop at Falls Ridge, a project of Westrum Development Co., is rising on 16.7 acres off Ridge Avenue west of Merrick Road, on a tract Westrum bought from the Philadelphia Housing Authority last year for $3.1 million.

The development consists of "stacked" townhouses, for sale in the $300,000s, as well as full-fledged townhouses, the largest of which are listed in the $700,000 range. In addition, there will be six small "workforce" units, reserved for buyers of limited means.

It could be two or three years before all of the 128 homes planned for Hilltop are built, said Westrum chief executive officer John Westrum, with the pace of construction dependent on the pace of sales. So far, he said, 15 units have been sold.

Right now, the site contains one block of stacked townhouses, half-built, and a strip of four-story townhouses, all but finished and directly overlooking the PHA site.

"For some people, living next to subsidized housing is a nonstarter," Westrum said. "And if it was the old PHA brick barracks over there, we would never have been able to do what we've done.

"But when people see how attractive the PHA housing is, and when we tell them about the qualifications to get in there, most are very accepting. We're excited about the East Falls marketplace."

For its part, PHA is in the process of delivering on its piece of the promise as well.

It is finishing off its own 163-unit development, on the other side of Merrick Road. Now being completed are 28 homes, all of them already sold at below-market prices to families with annual incomes of less than $55,000. Nine of the buyers are former PHA tenants.

"In some ways, we're more proud of what's been done in East Falls than in any of the other redevelopment projects we've done yet," said Kirk Dorn, spokesman for PHA executive director Carl Greene. "Because here we have new market-rate and new subsidized housing side by side."

Getting to this point has been anything but easy.

To force PHA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to make good on the original mixed-income pledge, East Falls community groups went to federal court in 2001. The suit was settled two years later, with the promise reinstated.

It took two more years to get HUD to agree to transfer the Hilltop tract to private ownership. Then came a dispute between Westrum and PHA over how many units should be built there.

"This has been long and drawn out, tedious and horrible and costly," said Julie Camburn, president of the East Falls Business Association. "But it's good to see that it's actually happening."

When all the construction is completed, one problem will remain, and it's not a new one: Four of the storefronts on the ground floor of PHA's senior-citizen residence along Ridge Avenue are vacant, as they've been since the building opened in 2004.

The highly visible vacancies are widely attributed to two factors.

One is the nature of the storefronts themselves; they have no built-in hookups for heating, air-conditioning, or even running water. The other is the lack of a consensus about what types of businesses should go there.

A bank has occupied some of the commercial space for more than a year. Officials say that nothing is imminent as far as leasing the rest.

That frustrates longtime residents of East Falls as well as the newcomers. But they figure that once Hilltop is completed, and once development starts on a site across Ridge Avenue, critical mass will be achieved and the vacancies filled.

"People here wanted mixed-use and mixed-income, and that's what we have," said Gina Snyder, executive director of the East Falls Development Corp. "It's taken a long time, but we're quite pleased with what we've got."

Contact senior writer Larry Eichel at 215-854-2415 or


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