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PHA President Kelvin Jeremiah was joined Thursday by city and federal officials in the historic groundbreaking of the Blumberg-Sharswood project. Photo: Max Marin/AL DÍA News

Concerns persist as PHA breaks ground on Sharswood-Blumberg redevelopment project

On Thursday morning, just two hours before the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) kicked off construction on the most ambitious development project the agency has ever seen, there were murmurs of mistrust in the courtyard of the Norman Blumberg apartments.

Asia Coney was walking around to “remember the good, the bad and the ugly.”

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On Thursday morning, just two hours before the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) kicked off construction on the most ambitious development project the agency has ever seen, there were murmurs of mistrust in the courtyard of the Norman Blumberg apartments.

Asia Coney was walking around to “remember the good, the bad and the ugly.”

She spoke with residents she knew in the long-troubled projects. In one month, the 46-year-old Blumberg towers will be torn down. As president of PHA’s Resident Advisory Board, Coney has been fielding concerns over the last year — including her own — about the housing authority’s 10-phase, $500 million project that will change the face of North Philadelphia indefinitely. She is a graduate of the public housing system herself, and knows the fear. She knows the history of half-promises.

“We remember urban renewal. We remember Fitzwater Street. We remember Lombard Street...and those communities were displaced. So it is not without merit that folks have some concerns,” Coney said.

Residents will be relocated and new construction will begin. They are living in a world of change. The transformation project. Gentrification edging slowly towards Sharswood from Temple in the east and Brewerytown from the south. Still, some residents are left wondering something else: Has PHA changed?

“For the first time, I was able to legitimately look them in the eye and say the change was coming,” Coney said. “And I really believe it.”

The biggest difference with the Sharswood redevelopment plan is that there will be one-for-one replacement of units. In the past, when PHA razed high-rise apartments and replaced them with single-family homes, there was always a disproportionate loss of units. And with a 10-year wait list to get public housing in Philadelphia, losing your affordable housing could mean it’s gone for good.

This time, PHA got the go-ahead to eminent domain 1,300 properties in the Sharswood neighborhood north of Girard College and south of Cecil B. Moore Ave. By the end of the project, the new Sharswood-Blumberg community will host 1,200 new residential units, 420 of which will be affordable and market-rate homeownership units, 683 will be affordable rental units, and 100 will be market-rate rentals. And most importantly to Coney — who went through this process herself at Tasker Homes — PHA has promised current tenants of the Blumberg towers the right to return to the reborn community.

Under a sunlit tent, the agency's president Kelvin Jeremiah takes the stage and addresses a crowd of 50 people.

“It’s a great day in Sharswood, isn’t it?”

Jeremiah is all smiles during the groundbreaking ceremony at 24th and Bolton Streets. Elected officials and other representatives from the project’s 20-some public and private partners flank him on either side. It's a big day. The event moves the city one step closer to fulfilling a promise that has loomed over this neighborhood for 20 years, and PHA president Kelvin Jeremiah is determined to see it through to the end.

There was a cheeriness to the thank-you speeches. Jeremiah trades inside jokes on stage with the City Council members Darrell Clarke and Jannie Blackwell. Mayor Michael Nutter applauds “the leading voices of public housing in our city.” Everyone speaks to the historic scope to this project.

Jeremiah built the plan around community input. Residents said they wanted more economic opportunities, and PHA adjusted the plan to bring an estimated 1,000 new jobs to the community (or 100 per phase) as well as 500,000 square feet of PHA-managed commercial space on Ridge Ave. There's a lot to commend here, and ribbon-cutting ceremonies are not meant to dwell on uncertainties.

Nevertheless.

Little mention is made of the roadblocks along the way: the frustrated and confused community stakeholders, the massive eminent domain that could disenfranchise property owners in the area.

Little mention is made of the challenges ahead. And yet Jeremiah doesn't keep joking about his deep-pocketed "best friends" for no reason.

Since day one of the Sharswood redevelopment plan, people have been asking: What if the rest of the money never comes through? Even with the partial HUD funding, a home grant from the Office of Housing and Community and low-income housing tax credits, only part of the total $500 million is on the table.

Coney, who hasn't always agreed with Jeremiah in the past, says she has faith Jeremiah will make it rain.

“That’s a major challenge,” Coney says. “But through working with him, I found out that he is a man of integrity. When he says something, he has proven it. That means a lot in my book. If he doesn’t get the money, it won’t be because he hasn’t tried, and I believe that.” 

There will still be challenges once the project comes to fruition. Jeremiah has acknowledged many times that PHA is battling a long record of poor stewardship. The "new PHA" will come alive throughout the largest project in the history of the agency. Again, there are promises on the line. Everyone has to have faith.

The site of the groundbreaking ceremony, however, suggests why maybe that faith won't come easily for all parties.

Stakeholders drive their shovels into an empty lot across from the Blumberg senior high-rise. Cameras flash. But just four months ago, vegetables were growing where this newly laid bed of limestone gravel covers the ground. Grassroots organizers in the Sharswood area had come together two years ago to clean up this PHA-owned plot. It had been blighted for years. They hauled out trash, put in thousands of hours of work to build the Philly Peace Park, a much-needed haven in an otherwise violent and food-poor community. Once the HUD grant came in, PHA made moves to reclaim the Peace Park lots for the new revitalization effort. The agency promised the park another, bigger, more "legitimate" location. That promise hasn't been fully realized yet, but even when it is, it won't change how the Peace Park community felt: displaced by bureaucracy. At end of the day, PHA had the final word, and the park didn't own the land in the first place.

The new PHA, the new Sharswood, the new North Philadelphia — it's going to take a long time.

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