A 'game-changer' for old Liddonfield site
"This is probably the most important development that this community will see in the next century." — Stan Cywinski, president of the Upper Holmesburg Civic Association
What would it mean to have a new, $100 million Holy Family University campus on the former site of the Liddonfield Homes public housing development?
It depends on whom you ask.
For the university, it would mean an opportunity to almost double its footprint in Northeast Philly and grow its enrollment by as many as 2,000 students.
For the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which owns the 32-acre parcel, the pending sale and development of the land would mean new employment and educational opportunities for many of the agency’s low-income residents.
And for the Upper Holmesburg community that surrounds the site, the project could mean rebirth and revitalization.
“This is probably the most important development that this community will see in the next century,” said Stan Cywinski, president of the Upper Holmesburg Civic Association. “This will be the catalyst that will put Torresdale Avenue back on the map.”
Although terms of the sale were included in a resolution approved by PHA Commissioner Estelle Richman on Friday, the parties have yet to sign a formal agreement.
In addition, it could take at least six months for zoning and environmental approvals before construction could begin.
Yet, enthusiasm knew no bounds during an on-site news conference hosted by City Councilman Bobby Henon on Monday to announce that PHA had, indeed, selected the “Holy Family Plan” from among four competing bids.
“It will be a game-changer for Northeast Philadelphia and will lead to more development in this region,” Henon predicted.
U.S. Reps. Bob Brady and Allyson Schwartz, State Sen. Mike Stack and State Rep. Mike McGeehan also were on hand to show their support for the project.
“This is a site that has been waiting for an answer for a while, and the community has been waiting for the right answer,” Schwartz said.
Brady said he favored giving residents more say over what is built in their neighborhoods.
“You’re not supposed to put something in a neighborhood that neighbors don’t want,” he said.
After decades of living in the shadow of Liddonfield, Upper Holmesburg residents were certain they didn’t want new public housing on the site.
Built in the 1950s as a military barracks, the development became a public housing complex where low-income families lived in more than 400 apartments. Over time, the site developed a reputation as a magnet for crime and blight. Folks considered it an eyesore and blamed it for a decline of the surrounding neighborhood.
PHA gradually phased out the site, and in 2010 demolished it. Today, much of the parcel looks like a park and bears little resemblance to its former incarnation.
Torresdale Avenue, Megargee Street and Cottage Street border the tract, as do the rear yards of dozens of Tolbut Street rowhomes. Viewing it from Torresdale Avenue, the rectangular site is about three blocks across and six blocks deep.
Dozens of mature shade trees, evergreens and shrubs occupy its undulating, patchy meadows. A five-foot-high chain-link fence surrounds the grounds to discourage would-be trespassers. Two paved driveways carve into the green space, but lead nowhere.
The elevation peaks along Torresdale Avenue, sloping gently downward for several blocks toward the interior. Eventually, the ground rises again until it crests along Cottage Street.
Last year, the agency welcomed prospective developers to bid on the site through a request for proposals. That process culminated on Friday when PHA’s Richman authorized negotiations with a consortium that includes Holy Family and several development firms headed by BSI Construction of Bensalem.
The development group expects to pay $4.2 million for the site. In addition, the university will award $1.04 million in tuition grants to 40 PHA resident students over 10 years. Further, the developers will hire PHA residents and contractors with ties to low-income communities to perform much of the work.
The college scholarships were a unique and crucial component of the Holy Family/BSI proposal from the outset, said Kelvin A. Jeremiah, PHA’s interim executive director.
“It was part of their original proposal,” Jeremiah said. “They wanted to show how PHA residents could benefit from this use.”
Detailed plans are pending. But according to the developers, the concept remains the same as initially submitted to PHA in January. The work could cost more than $100 million. The developers expect to fund the project, although they have not ruled out seeking government assistance, said BSI President John Parsons.
Drawings show three rectangular, multi-story buildings along Torresdale Avenue that will accommodate street-level retail stores. Housing for students and faculty are on the upper floors. The buildings will be at least three stories, maybe four, Parsons said. Parking will be in the rear. The buildings and parking lots will cover about six acres.
Affordable senior housing will occupy six acres of the land at the opposite end of the property along Cottage Street. The plans show two “T” shaped buildings, each with three stories and 23,000 square feet per floor. According to Parsons, there will be 64 housing units, ranging from 600 to 1,110 square feet apiece.
The plan is for Holy Family to partner with Holy Redeemer Health System to provide assisted-living care to residents there.
The university’s athletic facilities will cover the remaining 20 acres and include a baseball field and softball field — each with locker rooms and spectator facilities — as well as two multi-use fields suitable for soccer, field hockey and lacrosse. Lots for sports-venue parking will be configured along Megargee Street. Landscaped walking paths will wind around the playing fields and feature a marker honoring the former residents of Liddonfield.
The developers are prepared to start construction as soon as a sale is finalized and permits are in hand, Parsons said. They’ll build the athletic facilities first, then the senior housing and lastly the retail/university housing components.
“We’d like to be complete within three to four years,” Parsons said.
Construction would generate several hundred jobs, according to the developer. Once the site is in operation, it could mean dozens more permanent jobs through Holy Family University.
Holy Family is a private liberal arts institution founded in 1954 by the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth. Its 40-acre main campus is at Frankford and Grant avenues, about 1.5 miles from the Liddonfield site.
The institution has seen its greatest growth during the tenure of Sister Francesca Onley, who became its president in 1981. At the time, enrollment was 500. Now it’s about 3,200, including undergraduate and graduate students and two satellite campuses in Bucks County.
In 2002, the school earned university status. It has always been primarily a commuter school, although in recent years it has been trending toward more on-campus housing. There were 266 students living on campus last semester, about 84 short of capacity.
Many more students rent apartments near campus, although the university does not differentiate those students from true commuters.
The preliminary plans do not specify how many student residence units will be built on the Liddonfield site. But with housing and athletic facilities there, more of the main campus could be dedicated to academic and administrative uses.
“We’re not going to abandon the main campus, the core of the university,” Onley said. “But it does not mean we can’t expand.”
The university president hopes to grow the institution to 5,000 students and build a new business school on the main campus, which would free up classrooms for other academic programs.
“I think the project we’re going to see is going to establish the future for this neighborhood and for the university,” Onley said. ••