City seeks end to troubled, 60-year Eastwick urban renewal effort

City seeks end to troubled, 60-year Eastwick urban renewal effort

By Samantha Melamed, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER/DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
POSTED: Saturday, October 17, 2015

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Eastwick activist Earl Wilson at Darby Creek. Flooding, sinking houses, pollution plague neighbors. (photo by Michael Bucher / For the Inquirer)

The last time the city developed a plan for Philadelphia’s Eastwick section, in 1957, it proved disastrous for residents: Over the next several years, it condemned more than 2,000 acres of private property, evicting 8,636 people to make way for a vision of urban renewal.

Today, that vision remains largely unfulfilled: Suburban-style cul-de-sacs lie curled up in wait for houses that were never built. Those who did move in faced years of flooding, sinking houses, and exposure to pollution from two Superfund sites.

But soon, there could be a new Eastwick plan – one developed with input from the community.

That hinges in part on whether the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority can reach a deal with developer Korman Corp. The authority wants to retake control of the last large swath of vacant land optioned to Korman as part of a 1961 redevelopment agreement, which expires at the end of this year.

Authority spokesman Paul Chrystie said the agency was in early discussions over the 128-acre expanse. “The PRA’s preferred option,” he said, “would be to return control to the city for the beginning of a community-planning process.”

An attorney for Korman declined to comment on the negotiations.

A settlement would conclude a 60-year chapter of displacement, disenfranchisement, and neglect in the Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood, wedged between Darby Creek and the airport.

Amy Laura Cahn, an attorney at the Public Interest Law Center, which has been advocating for Eastwick residents, said a settlement would mark a monumental shift.

“The fact of the city supporting a community-planning process is incredibly meaningful,” she said.

It’s one of several signs of hope for the neighborhood.

In the last three years, residents have gotten organized, forming a civic association, the Eastwick Action Committee, and allying with the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge and environmental groups to form the Eastwick Friends and Neighbors Coalition. They’re finally getting help from City Hall on quality-of-life issues and flood mitigation.

Now, they want to be involved in any planning for the area, said Leonard Stewart and Earl Wilson, two longtime residents who are on the board of both civic groups.

“We want to be at the table – not like when they decided the whole area was blighted without notifying the people and forced them from the land,” Stewart said. “We want to make sure that won’t happen again.”

The last time was in the 1950s, when the area was known as the Meadows, a low-income, semirural (and racially integrated) community between the confluence of Darby and Cobbs Creeks and the Delaware River.

The city certified the area as blighted, citing substandard dwellings, frequent flooding, a lack of sewer facilities, and tax-delinquent properties. That cleared the way to begin condemning properties. In 1961, the authority entered into a redevelopment deal with New Eastwick Corp., joined later by Korman.

Much of that plan was not realized.

Wander down 86th Street, and you’ll see a grid of streets that lead nowhere. Instead of houses, there are frequently piles of debris. Community activists struggle to keep up.

“When I came back from vacation, there were over 500 tires back there,” Steward said. “We were concerned about them catching fire.”

Residents of the new Eastwick complain of other issues. They point to sinking houses, blaming soft soil dredged from the river to fill the wetlands. They worry about the impact of living near dumps designated Superfund contamination sites.

Above all, they fear flooding.

It was most severe during Hurricane Floyd in 1999, when four feet of water gushed into houses. There have been at least 10 significant floods since, according to the Water Department’s count.

Through it all, Korman has retained the right to buy remaining parcels – at 1961 prices.

In 2003, the authority sued to end the redevelopment deal but lost. Later, the city tried to take back part of the land; a lengthy court battle followed.

In 2011, the city, redevelopment authority, and Korman thought a settlement had finally been reached to resolve the dispute and divvy up the last 128 acres.

About 93 acres would be taken for airport expansion; Korman would keep the other 35, building 722 apartments with more than a thousand parking spaces. The city would pay Korman $9.6 million.

When City Council met to approve the zoning for the deal in 2012, more than 100 residents showed up to testify against it.

They worried runoff from parking lots would exacerbate flooding. They dreaded increased wear on roads that already crumble quickly due to, some believe, shifting fill underneath. And they were opposed, on principle, to another Korman development.

District Councilman Kenyatta Johnson put the bills on hold indefinitely – foiling the city’s deal with Korman.

Since then, officials have started paying attention to a newly vocal Eastwick. Johnson called hearings on flooding. In 2014, the Army Corps of Engineers issued a report on the feasibility of a levee along the creek but found it would raise water levels only up- and downstream.

It concluded more study was needed. The Water Department committed half the money and urged the Army Corps to match that in its next budget.

And the City Planning Commission will work on a new plan for Southwest Philadelphia this fall.

At Johnson’s urging, there will be a special focus on Eastwick and environmental challenges there – including the 128-acre parcel.

But the city must act soon. If no deal is reached before the redevelopment agreement expires, it could trigger litigation.

“It appears to be about how much money it takes to bring this to a close,” said Cahn, the public-interest lawyer. And, she added, it may require political will from other city agencies, in addition to the authority, to close out this tab.

Or Korman could go ahead and build single-family houses, as is its right by zoning law.

Residents find it hard to believe there’s a market for that, given the rising price of flood insurance.

Plus, Terry Williams, president of Eastwick Friends and Neighbors, said residents would inform prospective buyers about the flooding history. He doesn’t think it will come to that. He’d like to believe Brian Abernathy, the head of the redevelopment authority, who met with residents in July to talk about a resolution.

But he is skeptical.

“This is the history of the redevelopment authority here in Eastwick: They were the forerunners of eminent domain. They initiated the push-out of thousands of families,” he said. “At this time, we have Brian Abernathy, who comes with a different ethic, hopefully; it hasn’t manifested yet. So we’re waiting, biting our fingernails, as to what the outcome might be.”

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