Troubled Blumberg housing project targeted for change

Kelvin Jeremiah, chief executive of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, stands in a vacant lot across from the Norman Blumberg Apartments, which are at the center of a revitalization effort.
Kelvin Jeremiah, chief executive of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, stands in a vacant lot across from the Norman Blumberg Apartments, which are at the center of a revitalization effort. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 11, 2013

Even in the middle of the day, Bolton Street between 25th and 24th is so empty and desolate you can hear crickets.

A decade ago, the city aggressively razed vacant houses in this pocket of North Philadelphia, leaving acres of vacant land.

But nothing has happened since then, and that's a critical problem.

"There's no place else that is as forgotten as this part of the city," said Kelvin Jeremiah, chief executive of the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

A big part of the problem is the Norman Blumberg Apartments - an eight-acre public housing complex with three high-rise towers and 15 barracks-style buildings.

The old-style project, with its high crime rate and concentration of poor households, is holding back the neighborhood, Jeremiah said.

Since becoming PHA's top executive this year, Jeremiah has made renewal of Blumberg a priority for the Housing Authority. He has the backing of Mayor Nutter and City Council President Darrell L. Clarke, as well as the support of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority.

"We have to take back a community that has fallen to blight, disrepair, and crime for too long," he said.

PHA recently applied for a $500,000 federal grant to create a master plan for the area bordered by Cecil B. Moore Avenue to the north, South College Avenue and Poplar Street to the south, 20th to the east, and 27th to the west.

In the first phase, the Housing Authority plans to build 57 rental units on unused land at Blumberg and nearby vacant lots. In a sign of support, the city's Office of Housing and Community Development recently agreed to kick in $1.5 million. PHA will try to raise additional funds through federal low-income housing tax credits.

Key to any plan would be replacing the Blumberg high-rise towers with a low-rise community, and filling in vacant land with new housing or commercial space, Jeremiah said. PHA has reached out to other developers about collaborating.

"This is bigger than PHA," Jeremiah said.

At the same time, the Housing Authority is trying to address the problem of violent crime at Blumberg. Philadelphia police data show that the area has twice the rate of assaults, rapes, murders, and robberies as the rest of the city.

Jeremiah said crime was standing in the way of the neighborhood's renewal.

Three months ago, PHA replaced security guards working for an outside contractor with its own armed police officers. Each day, pairs of PHA officers make unannounced "vertical patrols" through the towers. Officers also are stationed in guardhouses at the entrances of the family apartment houses.

Public housing residents describe life at Blumberg with the blunt words of the crime-weary.

"Hell," Jeanette Gaines, a 55-year-old grandmother and 10-year resident, said as she watched her granddaughter at the playground at Blumberg.

"The worst," said Elisha Rodgers, a 29-year-old mother of three. "My kids can't come out here to play without something happening."

Residents are still talking about the July 12 shootout that left a 20-year-old man dead in the middle of the project's plaza.

Jeremiah was warned about Blumberg's notoriety when he arrived here two years ago from the New York City Housing Authority. To judge for himself, he made two trips at night over the summer, driving alone along Oxford and Jefferson Streets.

'Scary'

"There was all kinds of business activity and people trying to sell me things," Jeremiah said.

"It's scary," he continued. "No child should have to live under those circumstances."

When PHA bolstered its police presence, he said, "bad elements" brazenly warned him that Blumberg was "theirs."

"This is not theirs," Jeremiah said.

Built in 1967, the gargantuan Blumberg project has 510 units of housing encompassing the area between Jefferson and Oxford Streets and 22d and 24th.

In the last 15 years, other high-rise projects in the city have fallen like so many dominos.

Raymond Rosen, Schuylkill Falls, Southwark Plaza, Cambridge, Martin Luther King, Mill Creek, Norris Homes - all have been demolished and replaced with low-rise development, aimed at creating a broader income mix of renters and homeowners.

With the Blumberg neighborhood, key stakeholders - the city's Planning Commission and Redevelopment Authority, as well as nonprofit and private developers - are lining up behind PHA.

"Sometimes, the public sector has to take the first step so the private sector can take the second, third, and fourth steps," said Milton Pratt, a senior vice president of Michaels Development Co., a national developer that has built affordable rental properties near Blumberg.

A major problem with the Blumberg area - the inordinate number of vacant houses and lots - could actually become its greatest asset, developers and public officials say.

The area has more than 1,000 blighted homes or vacant lots - a third of which are owned by public agencies, including the city, its housing development nonprofit, PHA, or the Redevelopment Authority.

Officials for those agencies have pledged to use their land to support a redevelopment effort.

"Everyone is moving in the right direction here," said Alan Greenberger, deputy mayor for economic development. He said the city had made a commitment to PHA to bring its public land "into a larger vision" for the surrounding neighborhood.

The Redevelopment Authority has 39 parcels in the targeted area. In addition, the Philadelphia School District has closed two schools near the Blumberg project: Reynolds Elementary and Robert Vaux High School.

"We have a huge opportunity here to move something forward," said Brian Abernathy, executive director of the Redevelopment Authority.

The potential of the Blumberg neighborhood is helped by its proximity to faster-growing areas such as the Fairmount section to the south and Brewerytown to the west.

"Look at the amount of vacant land around the perimeter" of Blumberg, Council President Clarke said. But while calling the area "an ideal location," he added that "no one is going to build without some level of government subsidy."

'Wonderful'

PHA is finding support for a Blumberg renewal from other developers, including Project HOME. The nonprofit is building a wellness center with the YMCA and Jefferson University Hospital inside the target area.

"This could be a wonderful, wonderful step forward," said Project HOME cofounder Sister Mary Scullion, who lives just a few blocks from Blumberg.

The particulars of a redevelopment - how much it would cost, what it would look like - would be part of a master plan, Jeremiah said. If PHA receives the $500,000 federal planning grant, the city has agreed to commit an additional $400,000.

"At every level," Jeremiah said, "there is support because of the shared vision of what needs to happen."


jlin@phillynews.com

215-854-5659 @j_linq

www.inquirer.com/

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