PHA may 'cut our losses' and scrap Queen Lane Apartments demo plan, says agency official
December 28, 2012By Amy Z. Quinn for NewsWorks
"It's a real option, and it's something we are considering. Essentially, the site would remain as it is. ... There seemed to be some tension no matter what PHA tried to do."
-- Michael Johns, acting executive director of housing operations, PHA, of scaling back plans at the Queen Lane Apartments site in Germantown
After more than a year of public meetings, presentations, changing plans and disagreements over the future of the Philadelphia Housing Authority's property at West Queen Lane and Pulaski Ave., the one thing everyone seemed to agree on was that the aging high-rise apartment building had to go.
Now, for the first time since announcing plans to replace the 16-story tower with 55 low-rise units, PHA officials said that keeping and rehabilitating the building is an option on the table.
At a meeting Thursday night, officials showed a rendering of what a rehabbed Queen Lane Apartments tower would look like, and said the building could be made livable again.
"It's a real option, and it's something we are considering," said Michael Johns, PHA's acting executive director of housing operations. "Essentially, the site would remain as it is."
Potter's Field review still pending
Meanwhile, PHA residents, officials and Germantown neighbors are still awaiting the result of a historic review and planned archaeological dig to determine if human remains are beneath the ground, left from the 18th century Potter's Field that once stood on the site.
Johns said PHA has committed to bringing public housing back to the site, preferably through its plan to put new homes there. But if that doesn't work, the tower could stay.
"There seemed to be some tension no matter what PHA tried to do," he said. Ongoing delays around the project are "an insult to people who are on waiting lists."
While he didn't mention a specific deadline, Johns said the time may come soon when PHA would decide to fix up the tower rather than continue fighting and risk the funding it has secured for the project.
The not-so-subtle hint of an ultimatum didn't go over well with those who gathered at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, just across Pulaski Street from the empty and forbidding PHA property.
Some called it "asinine," while others begged for relief from the poverty, crime and death the tower became known for.
"You were asked to come here and kind of bully us," said Winona Street resident Jeff Templeton. "For you to come here and give us an ultimatum is a sign of disrespect to these people."
The meeting was meant to be another periodic update from project officials. However, it was in large part a continuation of the discussion of various issues that have swirled around the plan from the beginning: Why PHA built on the grave site in the first place, what will happen if any remains are discovered, what happened to the remains originally on the site, and what, if anything, should be re-built.
Johns noted that PHA's original plan had already changed based on the Potter's Field issue. He also expressed frustration at the torturously slow pace of progress on the project.
"Some folks in the community have opposed us on every point going forward," Johns said, noting that some opponents were motivated by a desire to not see public housing as much as a desire to honor those buried in the Potter's Field.
Through it all, there have been questions about why PHA would re-create a housing project there rather than do scatter-site housing in the area, especially with many vacant and abandoned properties in the surrounding areas of Germantown.
As he has at meetings and forums throughout the process, Germantown resident and former Eighth District City Council candidate Greg Paulmier strongly urged PHA to take a different approach.
"We want to integrate the families that need housing into our community," Paulmier said, decrying the time and money he said is being wasted on Queen Lane.
Affordable housing, in one form or another
Johns said whether the tower ultimately stays or PHA gets the go-ahead to develop the 55 new homes, there will be residents living at 301 W. Queen Lane.
"The housing authority has made the commitment to develop affordable housing on that site," Johns said.
Citywide, PHA has replaced several former apartment towers with townhouses and other low-rise structures, replacing high-rises with more traditional neighborhood setups.
Johns offered to take Germantown residents on a bus tour of other PHA sites to show them similar projects.
While little consideration was taken for the buried remains when the tower went up in the 1950s, and neighbors have described seeing bones in the ground during construction then, historic preservation regulations now require a so-called Section 106 review whenever federal money is used on a project with historic significance.
PHA and project officials have said repeatedly their desire is to neither disturb gravesites nor build anew on top of the former burial ground. The discovery of any remains at the site, or the discovery that the traditional two-acre Potter's Field site is actually larger, could ultimately change or halt PHA's plans.
Under PHA's original plan, the Queen Lane tower would have been demolished months ago, but demolition cannot proceed until the Section 106 review is complete. The agency has city zoning board approval for its 55-unit plan, but can't do anything until the historic review is complete.
"You've kind of driven us to this point," Johns told the audience. "Here we are, a year later. Are we any closer to moving forward? It's almost better for us in some ways to cut our losses, and rehab the building."