In the backyard of her house at the corner of Wakeling and Tacony streets, Helen Aichroth has raised a holly tree, an evergreen, and a garden of rosebuds and mock oranges while living there for 40 years under the shadow of Interstate 95.
She said she’s very proud of her home, which has four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a porch, a patio, a basement, and a carport that she built herself.
“It’s a wonderful house,” said Aichroth, 77. “I’ve put every dime I have into my house, into the floors, the walls, the ceilings, the plumbing. And now we’re going to have to go.”
Aichroth and neighbors who reside in about 30 other homes in the neighborhood will soon have to move to make way for a planned widening of I-95 in this area as part of the 95 Revive project, which involves the refurbishing and improvement of the highway from Vine Street to Cottman Avenue.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation began making offers to purchase homes from property-owners last week, and will also be offering relocation assistance to renters whose residences are being sold, according to PennDOT officials. Construction is expected to begin in this area in 2017.
“Everybody will be taken care of,” said Mary Haggery, a renter who lives on Wakeling Street. “It’s not like we’re being thrown to the wolves. I’ll be glad to leave. It’s not nice around here.”
The area being targeted for purchase by PennDOT is bounded by Bridge Street, James Street, Aramingo Avenue, and Tacony Street, an area that contains blocks of Wakeling Street and Pratt Street.
Located under Interstate 95’s exit 27, the Bridge Street and Harbison Avenue exit, these partly residential blocks are bordered by the Honeywell plant and the Maritime Academy Charter School, both on Bridge Street.
Some residents are happy at the prospect of being bought out by PennDOT.
“I feel good about it,” said Pratt Street resident Melanie Harris of the impending sale of her home. “It’s an opportunity to grow.”
But for other residents, this neighborhood is a home they say they are reluctant to leave.
“It sucks because I like this neighborhood. I finally found a house that I like,” said a renter on Wakeling Street, who declined to give her name but lives with her young son.
“It is what it is. I’m just afraid we’re going to get lowballed,” said a Wakeling Street homeowner of 18 years who refused to give her name.
On James Street, PennDOT is only acquiring the eastern side of the block. A resident of the western side of James Street, Christine Hart, said she was disappointed that she would soon live beside the highway.
“There could be accidents, traffic, noise,” said Hart, who first became aware of the impending acquisitions by PennDOT about a year and a half ago. “I’m a first-time homeowner and a single mother. Now I’m stuck.”
Aichroth said that years ago, when she first heard about the planned 95 expansion over where her house currently sits, she packed up her possessions and got ready to move.
“I packed five years ago. I emptied all my drawers. It’s horrible, everything’s in boxes. I’ve been living out of containers for years,” she said.
While Aichroth heard from neighbors about the impending plan, and says she received letters indicating that she should expect being required to leave her home soon, she could not produce any of the letters for Star, and PennDOT denied that they told anyone they would have to leave five years ago.
“No one was made offers five years ago, but at the public meeting [in Frankford] five years ago plans were presented. People knew and understood at that time that PennDOT would be coming eventually to acquire their properties,” explained Paul Schultes, PennDOT’s consultant-project manager.
“Offers were not previously made, letters were not sent. A right-of-entry letter for engineering and surveying might have been done,” he continued.
The process of making offers to residents was ongoing last week, Schultes said, but PennDOT is not releasing the appraisals of properties in the neighborhood publicly.
All of the appraisals for this project were made by independent, certified appraisers, and then verified by a second, independent appraiser, according to Matt Kulpa, PennDOT’s District 6 Right-of-Way Administrator.
“We start with a right-of-way plan, which tells us which properties we need to acquire and which portion we’re buying, either an entire property or just a piece of it for construction,” Kulpa said.
“After we have the plan, we get a packet of information to the homeowner, an ‘advance notice of acquisition.’ It shows the effect on their property … and tells you your rights when your property is needed for highway construction,” Kulpa explained.
PennDOT is required by law to offer a fair market value to homeowners in this type of eminent domain acquisition.
“I just want what I have,” Aichroth said of what she would consider fair compensation for leaving her home. “I just know I want a wonderful home. If they won’t give me a home where I want it, I will fight them for more money.” ••