Kensington's transformation leaps forward with Orinoka Civic House
The battered shell of the Orinoka Mills building sits like dark giant next to the Market-Frankford line in Kensington. Just one block from Somerset Station, the building has been abandoned since its last official occupant, a textile company, moved out in the mid-1980s. The surrounding streets have been through many rough years since then. But on Tuesday, Orinoka became a beacon of change.
Partnering organizations broke ground on a $16.2 million renovation project that will turn the abandoned building into the multi-use Orinoka Civic House. It was the kick-off of the first phase of the long-term “North of Lehigh Neighborhood Plan.” At the project’s helm is the North Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC), which has been working in the part of the neighborhood renamed “North of Lehigh” since 2007.
Stakeholders* who spoke at the groundbreaking repeatedly called the project “transformative”
Indeed, even the preliminary construction on Orinoka’s shell over the last several weeks has been a new sight.
By Spring 2017, the 70,000 square-foot building will be converted into 51 mixed-income rental units. The ground floor will feature 1,000 square feet of retail space, including a new office space for the NKCDC. Plans also contain a community room, a parking space for residents and even a coffee shop. Outside there will be an enhanced streetscape with cleaner sidewalks, more trees and better lighting.
Security was the subtext of all the remarks about transformation. Sandy Salzman, executive director of NKCDC, said that when she first pitched the project, “it wasn’t a safe neighborhood.”
On an early tour of the area, Salzman recalled that people on the street approached her and NKCDC’s board of directors offering to sell them “works” — local slang for hypodermic needles. At the groundbreaking ceremony, the 100-plus suits and ties next to the Orinoka suggested that a purge had already taken place.
Of course, it’s more complicated than that.
In 2012, the city, SEPTA Police, and the Philadelphia Police Department committed to purging major transportation corridors of drug dealing. The longstanding open-air drug market outside of Somerset Station was shut down, moving drug sales further from the El.
“One of the big things is that people have to get to work,” Captain Daniel O’Connor of the 24th district told AL DÍA. “They need a way to get safely to work, that’s why we put such a commitment there at Kensington and Somerset.”
Beyond NKCDC, other groups remain active improving the surrounding area. This summer, the Philadelphia Police Department expanded its foot beat cop initiative. Just three blocks north of Orinoka, McPherson Square — once known as “Needle Park” for the syringes that seemed to outnumber blades of grass — is finally a place where children can play. Prevention Point, a multi-service clinic, practices harm reduction with the at-risk drug users in the community.
Orinoka’s indicates that more change of this caliber is coming fast. Salzman expects to cut the ribbon on the building in less than two years.