Ryan Briggs Ryan Briggs is a staff writer and connoisseur of City Hall intrigue, business dealings, neighborhood gossip and local lore. Ryan has studied, worked and resided in Philadelphia since 2004, covering politics and development issues for Hidden City, Next City and Metropolis, amongst other fine publications.
MULTI-PURPOSE: The Mantua Community Improvement Committee operates from this building, which also houses its founder's private recording studio and is headquarters of his development company.
The city’s Mantua neighborhood long has been described as a “food desert,” a distinction that would end with the construction of a new supermarket known as “Westview Plaza.” Recently, the proposal to redevelop two city blocks near 36th Street and Haverford Avenue has drawn fire from some neighbors who oppose the city’s forcible buyout of dozens of lots needed for the store’s construction, via eminent domain.
Behind the conflict sits Rick Young, a man who has, unusually, positioned himself as both a supportive civic-association president and a savvy private developer with a stake in the supermarket. Young incorporated the nonprofit Mantua Community Improvement Committee (MCIC) in 2000 and serves as its president. The civic group has lobbied politicians for nearly a decade for millions of dollars in public money to aid in the construction of the plaza.
But in addition to being a “voice” for the neighborhood’s interests, Young is also one of the principal investors in a company that will develop Westview Plaza. Further, he purchased property in the seizure zone just months before the eminent-domain deal, then was compensated by the city for nearly seven times what he paid for it.
The saga goes back at least a decade. Young may very well have been the first person to officially propose building a supermarket in the neighborhood, saying he knew that the site at 36th and Haverford would be its ultimate location “since 2001 or 2002.”
“This is something the community wanted, and they haven’t had in the last 25 to 30 years,” he said last week in a phone interview.
But wishing for a supermarket isn’t enough in a neighborhood like Mantua, which has long suffered from poverty and unemployment. Young lobbied local Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell and, in 2005, the city began including recommendations for the supermarket in planning documents. Ultimately, a city redevelopment fund called the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative directed $2.8 million, with Blackwell’s approval, in part to acquire the land for the plaza.
Blackwell, who records show accepted a campaign donation from Young, also arranged a funding agreement for MCIC with nearby Drexel University. The $300,000-a-year deal was described by sources as emerging from “a handshake agreement” — one that the institution rarely officially acknowledged.
As MCIC’s profile expanded, Young’s role as president of the group became a lucrative paid position. But that wasn’t his only job.
“I’m also a developer,” Young says.
Around a decade ago, Young became involved with a private real-estate company called Strong Investments, LLC, which owns dozens of properties in Mantua — including two that will eventually be seized for the supermarket. Although that company’s managing partner, Mark Trachtenberg, says Young “stepped back” from an active role in the group a few years ago, Strong Investments has long owned the building that serves as MCIC’s current headquarters, and continues to receive $50,000 annually in rent from the nonprofit. That building also houses Young’s private recording studio, The Beat Factory, and is the headquarters of a new development company he founded shortly after “stepping back.”
That company, called Westview Development Partners, was registered by Young in 2010 — the same year that the state authorized a $2.75 million redevelopment grant for Westview Plaza. Young paired up with veteran developer Len Poncia of Aquinas Realty Partners and the two began attending Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority meetings to press for the initiation of the eminent-domain process. At these meetings, Young identified himself as a representative of Westview Development and, in one instance, as a member of Aquinas Realty Partners. Young declined to talk about his role in Westview Development.
The PRA held a decisive meeting in September 2012, approving the taking of 65 parcels for Westview Plaza. But just months before, Young had bought a dilapidated rowhome for a remarkably low price — in the heart of the redevelopment zone.
Records show that although this vacant house had sold for $15,500 in 2010, Young paid just $2,500 for it two years later. The previous owner was a real-estate company tied to Scott Mazo, an affordable-housing developer and fellow Blackwell contributor. Mazo said he and Young were “friends” and that deeding the property over was designed to “make a statement of support” for MCIC’s supermarket plan. He says he didn’t realize the land was about to be bought out by the city.
But Mazo couldn’t explain why he deeded the property to Young directly, instead of to his nonprofit — saying only, “from our standpoint, we didn’t see them as different.”
For his part, Young says he never intended to profit from the deal, but declined to say how much the PRA had given him in compensation. PRA records indicate he was given $17,325 for the property.
To be fair, Young wasn’t the only person who bought land in advance of the government payout. Point Breeze developer Ori Feibush’s OCF Realty picked up two lots at a March 2012 auction for $72,500; he says has not yet been compensated, but will “probably get $125,000 for the pair.” And relatives of Councilman Wilson Goode Jr. have owned land on the development site since 2005; they received $128,975 for six properties that had been valued at $52,235.
Meanwhile, just as Young’s plans as a developer were falling into place — Walmart was briefly interested as an anchor tenant — his life as head of MCIC was coming apart.
Last month, Drexel announced it had elected to cut off its annual grant to MCIC. It’s easy to see why the university might have been leery: MCIC refuses to disclose its board members or sources of revenue, both on its financial-disclosure forms and when asked directly by this reporter, and failed to register with the state’s Bureau of Charitable Organizations.
Because MCIC isn’t a registered charitable organization, it is not technically allowed to accept individual donations. Nonetheless, faced with the loss of its primary source of revenue, MCIC hosted a $250- to $3,000-a-head fundraiser in late September, with Blackwell and Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. billed as guests.
Westview Plaza may also be the key to solving MCIC’s financial problems for good. The PRA said that Aquinas and Westview Development had selected MCIC as a “community partner” for the multimillion-dollar development. Asked for an explanation, Young stressed that “partnership” was simply an acknowledgement of MCIC’s role in supporting the supermarket. But the PRA said that other “community partners” in similar projects have ended up getting a financial stake in the development itself.
Mantua will likely get its supermarket — sources say City Hall’s distaste for Young is overshadowed by the desire to develop the hardscrabble area. From the city’s perspective, it seems, dealing with MCIC is just the cost of doing business.
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