Gloria Thomas is still haunted by the first time developers came to Eastwick, back in the 1950s. Her family was among the 10,000 residents of this landscape of lowlands, swamp, farming country and neighborhoods where black and white residents lived and let live — all taken by eminent domain over passionate community opposition, and razed to make way for the largest urban-renewal scheme in the country.
Now, says Thomas, a $102 million plan by Korman Residential to take 35 acres of that condemned land and rezone it to accommodate 722 apartments — whether the community likes it or not — is giving her flashbacks to the bad old days.
“This is like something back in the ’50s, the same thing all over again. My mother, my grandmother, they all went through this same thing years ago. My grandmother was so upset about it, she up and died. Older people were killing themselves,” Thomas says. “Now I’m going through the same thing.”
The land in question is part of 128 acres wedged between the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, 84th Street and Mario Lanza Boulevard. As part of a deal dating back to 1961, Korman has the option to purchase and develop the land, owned by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA). That option has been extended over the years through various maneuvers; the PRA tried to litigate its way out of the deal in 2005 and failed, according to Amy Laura Cahn, a Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia lawyer who’s assisting the Eastwick residents. “Korman’s purchase option ends in 2015,” says Cahn, “and they’re suddenly in a tremendous rush to develop it.”
Eighth District Councilman Kenyatta Johnson introduced a bill to rezone the land, from single-family to multi-family development, on May 17; on May 24, he introduced a second bill to allow for the remaining 79 acres in the tract to be sold to the airport for its planned expansion. The two bills were linked, it seemed, part of a behind-the-scenes deal that worked for everyone, except the nearby residents.
Neighbors, who showed up en masse at a City Council hearing Tuesday, say they’ve been cut out of the rezoning process, which was undertaken via ordinance rather than through the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustments. Gary Stolz, manager of the Heinz refuge, worries the loss of the 128-acre buffer could damage the Delaware River’s last remaining stretch of freshwater tidal marsh and threaten the several endangered species that call Heinz home. Residents are worried about traffic, impacts on wildlife, crime and already-insufficient sewers and infrastructure (sinkholes are common).
And everyone is worried about flooding, in a region of the city where serious floods are an annual occurrence.
“When we have a good, hard rain, it comes right into my dining room,” says Carolyn Moseley, who lives near the site on Lyons Place. She says you don’t have to be a hydrologist to know that paving the acreage behind her house to put in 51 apartment structures and 1,034 parking spots will make the drainage problem even worse.
Of course, the community hasn’t seen any reports from a hydrologist — or environmental-impact studies, traffic studies or infrastructure studies. “Nobody reached out to Heinz, nobody reached out to the community,” says Cahn. “All of the community participation that’s happening now was instigated by community leaders.”
Leonard Stewart, 67, was the first Eastwick resident to notice the quiet resurrection of the ghost of urban renewal. He spotted surveyors near his house on the 8500 block of Lyons Place and began asking questions. Terrance Johnson, who lives nearby (and believed his home backed onto the Heinz refuge, not a potential apartment site), began making phone calls. That’s when he learned that Korman was involved. The name is something of a dirty word in the area. Resident Joanne Graham told Council Tuesday about recurrent flooding in her Korman-built Eastwick home.
Residents and the Heinz refuge hastily organized, creating the East-wick Friends and Neighbors Coalition. Cahn says their immediate goal is to delay the rezoning until Council reconvenes in September, so that more study and community input may be possible.
“The importance of having community participation in a place, particularly where there’s 50 years of history of cutting people out of the process — it’s really the bottom line,” she says.
Guian McKee, an associate professor at the University of Virginia who has researched the Eastwick redevelopment, says that back in the 1950s, “it was a very top-down kind of planning process.” Eastwick was redeveloped partly as a place to house the black residents displaced by renewal efforts in North Philly. “We’re still seeing the consequences today of decisions that were made 50 or 60 years ago,” says McKee. “This is still the urban-renewal story playing out.”
He figures about two-thirds of the original Eastwick plan was enacted. Korman received rights to about 500 acres, including the land now in question. City officials — Council, the mayor, the PRA — “have their own political interests in seeing these projects succeed,” he says, “But you have to stand back and question whether these deals are in the public interest.”
Still, Johnson has expressed enthusiasm for the project, and interest in brokering a community-benefit agreement. His spokesman, Zack Burgess, says, “The councilman … understands the issues of his constituents who have issues with Korman. But based on what he’s seen thus far, he hopes that it can be good for both sides.”
On Tuesday, Korman attorney Peter Kelsen pledged the project could “go a tremendous way” toward alleviating flooding, and committed to working with the community. The city Commerce Department touted the jobs to be had in construction, the need for middle-income apartments. And Johnson asked the Rules Committee for a favorable vote. But as of press time, the committee hadn’t moved on the bill.
Gloria Thomas believes the proposal is just more of the same. In the 1950s, “Korman put the lie out, that this was all swampland and farmland. We had a country suburban lifestyle, and they dismantled everything. It’s really something to go back to all this again.”