Rehabilitating buildings and their communities

Posted: October 07, 2013

Developer Ken Weinstein has a knack for finding opportunities in places where others see none.

Upper Darby and Norristown, to name two suburban locations, as well as city neighborhoods.

In 2009, Philadelphia-based Weinstein and business partner Stan Smith paid $1.1 million for the 84,000-square-foot former Verizon Corp. building across from the Upper Darby Township building. They rehabbed it for offices as 7200 Chestnut.

In Norristown, Weinstein's firm, PhillyOfficeRetail, is completing work at 317 Swede St., across from the Montgomery County Courthouse, and commercial space at 401 DeKalb St., in the county seat's reemerging business district.

His only regret, he says, is that there aren't more opportunities in both communities. Still, he has plenty to keep him occupied.

In the last 24 years, Weinstein, 49, has amassed a portfolio of more than 200 properties, from the Trolley Car Diner in Mount Airy to a former Episcopal church in Germantown, now destined for a school.

Weinstein, a political organizer who grew up in central New Jersey, began rehabbing rowhouses for rent in 1989.

"I was living in Fishtown, renting a three-bedroom rowhouse for $400 a month from a woman who bought derelict properties and fixed them up," Weinstein said. "I looked for a place where this would have a maximum impact, and picked the Germantown area."

Weinstein's first rehab, on Phil-Ellena Street, established a precedent he followed on the scores that followed: buying one- to three-unit properties; fixing them up for less than $25,000; and renting them for less than $700.

"My rule was that I would never buy a property I wouldn't live in. My business plan was 50 percent financial gain and 50 percent community improvement," he said.

"There are blocks in Germantown that have a couple of abandoned buildings in them. The goal is to get in there and rehab them before it gets to be six or seven."

In 1996, he acquired what was purported to be Mount Airy's oldest house. Without prior restaurant experience, he opened the Cresheim Cottage Cafe.

"There was always a need for a revitalized commercial area along Germantown Avenue in Mount Airy," Weinstein said. "Residential was far ahead of commercial properties in value, but houses on those streets within a block or two of the avenue had depressed prices."

Cresheim Cottage Cafe, which he sold in 2005, was his first commercial property there. Trolley Car Diner opened in 2000, and he now owns a dozen or so along the avenue in Mount Airy. Which led him to create a business-improvement district that he oversees.

"We need more businesspeople like Ken," said Anaj Gupta, executive director of Mount Airy USA, the community-development corporation. "He has a social mission and community orientation behind everything he does as a business operator and real estate developer, and our neighborhood is better off because of it."

Weinstein recently purchased the national landmark St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Germantown for $435,000 and is spending $4 million to renovate it for the Waldorf School.

He has 20-year leases with SEPTA for the Allen Lane, Ardsley, and Fort Washington Stations, splitting renovation costs for the last two and renting them from the transit agency.

Believing that SEPTA's $25 million investment in revitalizing Wayne Junction means good things for the nearby neighborhoods, Weinstein acquired old factories and other vacant properties there.

He acquired at sheriff sale the note for Germantown Settlement Charter School and its 4.5 acres, and signed a lease to turn the chapel into a performing-arts center and theater.

"I think Ken Weinstein is a visionary," said Gina Snyder, executive director of the East Falls Development Corp., who with the Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust, brought him to the neighborhood.

Weinstein and his partner Bob Kaufman turned a 100-year-old pool house on South Ferry Street, known locally as the Bathey, into the Trolley Car Cafe.

Said Snyder: "I trust him to make good decisions that benefit everyone and are not just narrowly focused on his own interests."


aheavens@phillynews.com

215-854-2472

@alheavens at Twitter.

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