BOARDED UP: These four blighted properties on the 5000 block of Baltimore Avenue have remained vacant.
The corner of 51st Street and Baltimore Avenue is a confusingly troubled intersection. It could act as a bridge between 52nd Street — the biggest commercial strip in West Philadelphia — and the thriving neighborhoods to the east. Instead, there’s dozens of empty lots and boarded-up buildings. It’s difficult to look at the emptiness and not wonder, “What happened?”
Some neighbors say that the politically connected nonprofit Baltimore Avenue Redevelopment Corporation (BARC) is what happened. BARC’s string of ever-changing plans for the vacant properties, backed by the threat of eminent-domain seizure, have scared serious investors off the block for more than a decade, they say. Now, it’s rumored that BARC has asked the city to seize even more private land.
The possibility of private development at 51st and Baltimore seemed unlikely 17 years ago, when this all started. But the Rev. Joseph D. Patterson of Hickman Temple A.M.E., a church that still towers over the block, saw opportunity in the blight.
In 1996, he proposed a daring plan. In it, the city would condemn nearly all the properties opposite the church, then transfer the land to BARC, the nonprofit Patterson had founded just that year. BARC would transform the land into a combination medical center and pharmacy, to be leased by nearby Mercy Hospital. The city would get more medical options to an underserved area, and Patterson’s nonprofit and church would get the rent money.
Patterson, the influential president of the Philadelphia Black Clergy at the time, had the ear of many politicians — Rep. Chaka Fattah announced Patterson’s retirement to Congress. Within a year, Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell was on board, steering nine private lots and millions in subsidies to BARC.
But the plan might have been a little too ambitious: One property owner resisted the eminent-domain process for years, and financing proved tricky. Ultimately, the pharmacy was dropped, and a large parking lot and seemingly superfluous side yard added to the center. Still, it was something positive on a block that had been left to rot. The Samuel J. Patterson Wellness Center — named for the Reverend’s father — opened in 1998.
“Our vision had always been to provide medical services to those residents in this medically underserved area,” said Dr. Benjamin Smallwood, BARC’s current president, in a recent phone interview. “That’s always been the vision. It’s never changed.”
Sean Dorn, who owns a variety store across the street from the wellness center, says that’s not entirely true. In 2005, he says, BARC tried to get the other side of the 5000 block of Baltimore — the side containing Hickman Temple and his store — certified as “blighted” in hopes of eventually building a massive charter school. Dorn says that idea fizzled, but added that BARC has sought other land in the area for other tangential ideas.
“At one time, they had a three-fold brochure showing some kind of seven- or eight-story building at [51st and Baltimore],” said Dorn. “It mentioned job-training centers, senior centers and a bunch of vague social services.”
Keith Brown, a business owner on that corner, says BARC tried to have his automotive shop and four dilapidated storefronts condemned around 2010 for a second charter-school proposal.
“They just came up one day with someone from [the city government] and started posting up orange stickers that said ‘condemned,’” said Brown, who has owned a business in West Philadelphia for 26 years. “I was so mad, I went to straight to City Council.”
After Brown confronted Blackwell, he says, his property was eventually struck from the condemnation list. But the threat of eminent domain still hangs over the four storefronts, two of which were recently sold to new owners.
“You’re going to tell these people that are trying to start businesses to leave because this church wants a school?” said Brown. “It’s about money. I don’t even understand why a church has to make more money when they’re supposed to be a religious entity.”
The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA), which handles condemnation and eminent-domain proceedings, says BARC has asked them to condemn the buildings on the 5000 block for other projects more than once over the years — most recently in July.
“They approached the Authority about six months ago with a new proposal to expand the [wellness center], add more parking and build student housing,” said Tracy Pinson-Reviere, a project manager for the PRA. Pinson-Reviere says the PRA is considering the plan, but that condemnation was “not definite.”
Confusingly, Smallwood suggested that BARC’s latest proposal may have already fizzled. “Because of the Affordable Care Act, we believed that there was a demand for medical space for medical practitioners,” Smallwood says. But with the rollout of Obamacare going less than smoothly and a 50-percent vacancy rate in the existing wellness center, the expansion is “in flux.”
BARC would nevertheless like to acquire the four buildings next to Brown’s auto shop for some future project, says Smallwood, despite the two new owners.
“I don’t understand how four buildings that are falling down could have anything to do with any development,” he said. “Some of them don’t have any roofs, some have no backs. I don’t see how you can renovate them.”
One, 5042 Baltimore Ave., was, in fact, being renovated until recently. Mahari Bailey, who owns a café and salon on 52nd Street, had installed new windows and stabilized the precarious building. But no longer: He listed the partially completed building for sale last month.
Bailey declined to be interviewed, but an associate said Bailey had complained about “threatening behavior” from city building inspectors since he’d purchased the property — just five days after the date of sale last July, Bailey received a citation from L&I. The source believed this was evidence that Bailey was being pressured to unload the property.
With Bailey’s renovations halted and the latest BARC plan apparently not going anywhere, Brown and Dorn can only contemplate the eyesore across the street from the windows of their respective businesses. What happened?
“The more I’m around this block and find out its history, the more I’m convinced the reason it doesn’t look like [other blocks] is precisely because of the eminent-domain plans continually scaring away everyone who would have fixed it up,” said Dorn.
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