Chinatown's Eastern Tower development gets key approval

Developer Ahsan Nasratullah (right) received a key approval from the federal government in December, allowing him and his Chinatown partners to take advantage of the visa program.
Developer Ahsan Nasratullah (right) received a key approval from the federal government in December, allowing him and his Chinatown partners to take advantage of the visa program. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 21, 2014

PHILADELPHIA The long-planned Eastern Tower community center and apartments in Chinatown may finally move off the drawing board if developers can raise $33 million from affluent immigrants in search of green cards.

The nonprofit Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. (PCDC) said Wednesday that it hoped to generate most of the money from Chinese investors who would each agree to pony up a half-million dollars in return for visas for their families.

The federal government's "EB-5 program" for business visas was started 22 years ago. It works like this: An investor, say, in Shanghai would agree to lend the Eastern Tower project $500,000. Such a venture has to create 10 jobs that last at least two years.

The investor, a spouse, and any children under 21 then would get temporary visas. After two years, the project has to prove to the federal government that the jobs were created before permanent residency visas can be issued.

The goal of raising $33 million from 66 foreign investors is "very realistic," said PCDC's chairman, the Rev. Thomas Betz of Holy Redeemer Chinese Catholic Church and School.

Betz, who is also a lawyer, said there was "a tremendous amount of interest locally" in identifying potential investors in China and elsewhere.

"We have a high level of confidence this will succeed," Betz said. Affluent individuals in China "still see the United States as a place for opportunity for themselves and children."

The 23-story Eastern Tower, proposed for a vacant lot at 10th and Vine Streets, would include a community center; 143 rental apartments, including 31 affordable units; and retail space and offices for medical, educational, and social services. All zoning issues with the city have been resolved and financing for the $75 million project has been falling into place, said John Chin, PCDC's executive director.

But the final component only came together in December. That's when PCDC and local developer Ahsan M. Nasratullah received approval from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to start a regional center for matching EB-5 investors with projects. Nasratullah leads Teres Holdings, the company that built the HUB on Chestnut, a student-apartment project in University City.

The partnership, called the Global City Regional Center, will start off with raising money for the Eastern Tower project. Moving forward, the center will try to link foreign investors with projects in Philadelphia and the region, Nasratullah said.

Nationally, interest in the visa investment program has been soaring, said Audrey Singer, a senior fellow for the Brookings Institution who follows policy issues affecting states and metropolitan areas.

Demand is strong both among investors and borrowers, she said. The recession has made traditional sources of financing difficult to tap, particularly for real estate developers.

"There are more people now who have money and more reasons to leave," Singer said. "People are looking for opportunity for their children and families."

Five years ago, about 800 foreign investors took advantage of the investor visa program. In 2012, the number shot to more than 6,600, Singer said.


jlin@phillynews.com

215-854-5659 @j_linq

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