Prisoners to the blight

Lula Dixon, 85, has lived in Logan for 16 years. There was a time when Logan "was a nice neighborhood," she said.
Lula Dixon, 85, has lived in Logan for 16 years. There was a time when Logan "was a nice neighborhood," she said.
Posted: July 21, 2010

BISHOP Kermit L. Newkirk is frustrated. From his perch at Harold O. Davis Memorial Baptist Church, in Logan, on the edge of the infamous "Logan Triangle," his view features more than 35 acres of empty lots edged with overgrown weeds, concrete barriers and piles of garbage, chip bags, soda bottles, old tires and sofas.

And he's had roughly the same scenery for more than two decades.

"This may be the largest blighted area in the city of Philadelphia, and, after 25 years, we're still looking at it," Newkirk said. "And the way it's going now, I don't see anything changing in the next five or 10 years."

In 1986, a gas explosion that damaged four houses confronted city officials with something Logan residents had known for years: Their homes were sinking.

The reason? The so-called Logan Triangle - actually a five-sided swath of land bordered by Roosevelt Boulevard and Wingohocking, Loudon, 12th and 7th streets - had been developed in the 1920s on top of Wingohocking Creek, which was diverted into a pipe, and its creekbed filled with cinder, ash and other materials not suited for building foundations. As the houses settled, they began to sink, cracking walls, foundations and gas lines.

It took almost 15 years for the city to relocate the more than 950 homeowners and to tear down their houses. Frustrated residents who live near the nearly vacant tract are still waiting for the next step. Some of them compared the empty tract to a cancerous tumor in a healthy body, slowly extending its poison into surrounding streets and destroying them with it.

"It's a problem that has been festering for 25 years," said Jeremy Nowak, CEO of the Reinvestment Fund, a nonprofit organization with a focus on urban revitalization. "Any kind of vacancy will pull down the rest of the neighborhood. The best you can do is try to keep the land well-managed, gated and planted, but if you're not doing that, it becomes more and more problematic."

The city isn't doing that. It isn't gated, it isn't planted and it isn't well-managed.

Sometimes, the block of North 10th Street next to Newkirk's church is almost impassable with dumped trash. Stray cats abound, as do rodents. People walk their dogs on the land and don't clean up after them. Crime is a problem.

"They can send a man to the moon, and they can't fix a sinkhole," marveled resident Sherry Graham, 59, of nearby North 8th Street. "For years, they've been saying they're going to build something here, do something here, and they never do. And they're building everywhere else."

A few years ago, someone called and asked Newkirk how he'd feel if someone built a prison on the empty land. He balked then. He's not sure he would now.

"Now we're the prisoners," he said. "We're the prisoners to this blight."

Is there a buyer?

Cecily Peterson-Mangum said that she shares and understands the Logan residents' frustration. She is executive director of the non-profit Logan Community Development, which was formerly the Logan Assistance Corporation, an organization established to help relocate Logan residents.

"A lot of developers have contacted us with wonderful ideas, but they don't appreciate the gravity of the situation," she said. "The holdup is, we're looking at close to $60 million . . . just getting the land into its virgin state before you can develop. In this current economic climate, I don't think you can find any developers."

City councilwoman Marion Tasco, whose district includes the area, echoed Peterson-Mangum's words. Redeveloping the area is so costly that it's unlikely a private developer could do so without aid from the city, which has no money to spare, Tasco said.

"It's not an easy property to develop," she said.

But it's not an impossible property to develop. Newkirk, who says that he probably knows the abandoned Logan property better than anyone, said that actual land remediation would be less than $60 million because not every acre would have to be filled in.

"Just remediate the area where the big box is going," he said, referring to a large chain store. "It will create jobs and develop the economy."

And Bart Blatstein, the developer behind projects like Northern Liberties' Piazza at Schmidt's, said he believes that the Triangle is "absolutely" commercially developable.

A few years ago, he was one of two developers who submitted proposals for the land. His plan included a supermarket, senior housing and a banquet hall.

Blatstein said that he would still be interested in a Logan project.

"The development community should decide if it's too expensive or not," he said. "They have the expertise."

Farm or develop?

Another question is whether a mixed-use development - which many neighbors and other interested parties say they want - is the best use for the land.

In 2009, the city's Redevelopment Authority asked the Urban Land Institute's Philadelphia District Council to perform a study of the land.

The nonprofit group concluded that the best use of the acreage lay in greening projects, perhaps as a tree farm for the city or a community garden for neighbors or an urban farm that would sell fresh produce to locals.

"A green solution was clearly what everybody thought was the best way to approach this," said Chris Terlizzi, chairman of ULI Philadelphia. "This is a 30-odd-acre parcel. It creates an interesting opportunity that may not exist in every urban area."

Terry Gillen, director of the Redevelopment Authority, said that ULI's report, which also concluded that developing the land for commercial use would simply cannibalize other nearby businesses, was an eye-opener. While she wouldn't say that commercial development was off the table, she did say that green uses certainly were worth looking into.

"If the ULI report is right and we can get some economic activity generated by doing some things we're not doing anywhere else in Philadelphia, it's worth taking seriously," she said.

The quality of the land and the question of what to build are not the only issues that have slowed and complicated the Logan redevelopment.

Tasco points out that it took almost 15 years to relocate the families and clear the land. Even today, there are still two occupied homes on the property.

Also at issue is ownership of the lots. The city's Redevelopment Authority currently owns 92 out of 985 parcels – only about 10 percent. The rest are owned by private owners, the Logan Assistance Corp. and a host of governmental agencies.

Gillen said that her office was working to acquire the rest of the site, possibly using money left over from the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, former Mayor John Street's attempt to address blight by tearing down empty buildings and buying empty lots. Once the site is all under one ownership, another hurdle to development of any sort would be cleared, she said.

Tasco said that the recent economic downturn hurt Logan in two other ways: By scaring away some interested developers and by making it more of a financial strain on the city to maintain the land.

"Maintenance of the property is a real challenge to the city," Tasco said. "It's a large piece of land and expensive to take care of."

How long must they wait?

Lula Dixon, 85, the block captain on North 8th Street, said that Logan "was a nice neighborhood when I moved here" 16 years ago.

She looks at the abandoned land as a great opportunity for the city. They could build a park there or a community center, something that could help re-anchor the neighborhood, she said.

"They've got to do something," she said adamantly.

Newkirk thinks that the elected "they" downtown have never felt enough pressure to do anything: People like him, he said, were too quiet. Other neighborhood leaders moved from the area.

"So you have a defeated, disillusioned group that are still there that have taken this for granted as part of the status quo," he said. "And as they die, there will be another empty house, then another empty house . . . ."

"Philadelphia has few leaders or visionaries, people who can see beyond the moment," he said.

Neighbors like Sherry Graham say they aren't happy with Tasco or Mayor Nutter. Graham pointed out a "for sale" sign attached to a neighbor's front porch. She said that the real-estate agent has organized two open houses at the home in recent weeks and no one has come.

"Nobody wants to buy in this area," said Graham, who has lived in her home for 32 years. "The way it looks, I don't blame them."

That's not to say that no one here tends to their properties. Many do, proudly pointing out their front yard plantings and the ways they've transformed vacant lots into parks and gardens.

Pat Coles, 68, another North 8th Street resident, said that she and her husband had invested thousands of dollars in their home, renovating the kitchen and a bathroom, even though they realize that they may never get a return on their investment.

"I'm the type of person that if I gotta live here, I want to see it look good," Coles said.

Still, even some of the residents' grown children shun the neighborhood. And the beaten-down look of some homes and the overgrown, trash-strewn acres nearby can sap the spirit from even the most dedicated homeowners, like Victoria Waters, who has lived in her home on 8th Street near Loudon Street for 20 years.

"Sometimes," said Waters, 67, "I get so disgusted I don't feel like doing nothing."

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