PHILADELPHIA- The Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) had an aesthetic and social vision for the redevelopment of the Schuylkill Falls public housing site.
The authority wanted to take advantage of the natural beauty of the hilltop site, overlooking the historic Schuylkill River and Falls River Bridge. But more important, the PHA sought to integrate the new public housing units into the surrounding community, which includes an exclusive section of Philadelphia that boasts Gov. Ed Rendell and Sen. Arlen Specter among its residents.
The old public housing site, Schuylkill Towers, was a walled-off community with inward-facing courtyards isolated from the surrounding neighborhoods. The two high-rises opened in 1955 but had been vacant for 10 years before being demolished in 1996. In 1997, the PHA received a $26 million federal HOPE VI grant to redevelop the site.
“We’re trying to create the kind of architecture that gives us more of a connection into the broader community,” said PHA CEO Carl Greene. “Our job was to reintegrate, so the residents could shop at the same stores, go to the same schools, receive the same support from fire and police and ambulances, and all the rest of the services of the community.”
In August 2007, the PHA put the finishing touches on the decade-long revitalization plan when it completed Phase II of the Falls Ridge development, consisting of 28 affordable homeownership units. The homes, available to families earning up to $43,000, were sold in just 30 days, and nine of the buyers were previous PHA tenants. Phase II was financed through more than $3.8 million of the HOPE VI grant and a more than $2.8 million line of credit from Wachovia Bank.
The PHA completed Phase I in 2004, which includes 135 affordable rental units and 12,000 square feet of commercial space.
Another phase, consisting of 128 market-rate condominiums located in the same subdivision as the affordable units, is being developed by Westrum Development Co. Westrum will donate six units to the PHA as affordable homeownership units. Thirty units have been completed and sold, and the rest are slated for completion by 2010.
The largest market-rate condos were priced at between $500,000 and $600,000, in contrast to the $165,000 price tag on the affordable units.
Income mixing was an important part of the PHA’s vision. “The public housing development is really the gateway, when you come off of the main thoroughfare, to a trendy, middle- to upperincome neighborhood,” said Greene. “The first thing you see when you enter the neighborhood is a brand-new public housing development.”
The PHA was the developer, builder, and sales agent on the affordable units. The PHA has a unique partnership with Wachovia Bank, which sends loan officers to Falls Ridge to provide credit approval on the spot for prospective buyers. The PHA also offers a forgivable silent second mortgage to help sell some of the houses to those earning 30 percent of the area median income.
The early returns are extremely positive. Where the Schuylkill Falls public housing development was rife with crime, no major crimes have occurred at the redeveloped site over the past three years.