By Michael D’Onofrio
PHILADELPHIA — A years-long bid to build mixed-income housing units in East Oak Lane has pitted a Baptist church against its neighborhood.
Refuge Evangelical Baptist Church aims to construct a $15.1 million four-story apartment building on a vacant lot at 1122 Oak Lane with 40 one-bedroom apartments for seniors. Ninety percent of the units would be priced at or below $1,000 per month.
The church’s pastor, the Rev. Wilbert Richardson, said his church launched a proposal in 2016 to build affordable housing for senior citizens on the property it owned because of a dearth of options in the area.
“There is absolutely no affordable housing in East Oak Lane. Period,” Richardson said while sitting inside his basement office at the church on Wednesday.
The church and its development partners, who need a variance from the Zoning Board of Adjustment and tax credits from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency to build the project, have the backing of Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, who represents District 9 where the North Philadelphia neighborhood is located.
Residents in the majority Black neighborhood and several neighborhood organizations, including the Oak Lane Community Action Association (OLCAA), which also serves as the registered community organization there, have pushed back against the plans.
Opponents say the four-story brick building doesn’t fit with the character of the neighborhood, which is made up of single-family, detached, multi-level stone homes.
“It’s going to be an eyesore,” said David Anker, a member of OLCAA who lives near the church on Oak Lane.
A long-time vision
“We have a lot at stake in this,” Richardson said about the project.
He noted that the apartment building’s facade would be similar to the brick exteriors of the Oak Lane Library, Ellwood Elementary School and Engine 63 Fire Station, all of which are located nearby.
Richardson said he has envisioned building senior housing in the neighborhood for decades.
The opportunity to build senior housing arose in 2013 when a fire destroyed St. Mary’s Protectress Ukrainian Church, which sat on the lot at North 12th Street and Oak Lane, across the street from Refuge Evangelical Baptist Church. Richardson said he had a long-term relationship with the Ukrainian church’s leadership, allowing him purchase the property in 2016 for $80,000. (The city values the property at $555,000.)
The proposed building would be named Gwendolyn Richardson Arms, in honor of Richardson’s deceased wife.
The facility would be open to individuals 62 and older. The majority of units (21) would be priced at or below $845 per month, while 15 are priced at $1,000 to and four at $1,350.
The building would have nine parking spaces and amenities include a gym, community room, health and wellness suite and green space.
Richardson said it has taken years for the church to secure backing and finances.
The developers are seeking $1.18 million in low-income housing tax credits through the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA). The group has received tentative approval for a $2 million grant through the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority contingent upon receiving approval of those tax credits.
Bruce Morgan, who heads BCM Affordable Housing, said on a call on Wednesday in Richardson’s office that the project has been “misconstrued” by opponents and that developers have redesigned the project in response to their concerns.
The fate of the project depends not only on attaining the city variance, but attaining the grant and tax credit, Morgan said.
Morgan and Conifer have teamed up on various other affordable housing projects in the city and region. The pair partnered with Mt. Airy Baptist Church to construct the soon-to-open Golden Age Living Accommodations in Mt. Airy.
The neighborhood is united against the project and residents accused Parker, the councilwoman, of ignoring residents’ concerns.
Freida Williams, a 20-year resident of the neighborhood and a member of OLCAA’s board of directors, said she was was “disappointed” over Parker’s support for the project that lacked community support. She questioned why the councilwoman is strongly aligned with the church.
“It seems like it’s a betrayal of the residents’ stated opposition,” Williams said.
“All we’re saying is: Locate it somewhere else.”
Anker described the project as a “misplaced, ill-conceived apartment complex” that will neither benefit the neighborhood nor potential seniors living there.
“In this case, it’s serving the political will of an elected official [Parker], and it’s serving a property owner who happens to be a church.”
Opponents raised several issues with the project: The lot is zoned for single-family housing and requires a variance from the city; they said the neighborhood lacks the infrastructure for a 40-unit apartment complex; and they said the project would bring more traffic, not provide enough parking, and potentially decrease housing values.
“That corner doesn’t fit this project,” Anker said while sitting on his porch on Wednesday. “We support development, including apartment buildings that are high-density, and we support affordable housing in our neighborhood. This is not ‘not in my backyard.’”
In February, neighborhood residents voted 83-17 against the proposal during a community meeting held by the Oak Lane Community Action Association.
Other local groups have lined up against the project, including the Friends of the Oak Lane Library, Oak Lane Tree Tenders and a handful of block captains.
Anker suggested that residents would support developing the site as an affordable single-family detached homes, or possibly splitting the lot to make two homes, or turning the lot into green space.
The opposition to the project is visible from the street: Lawn signs dotted the front laws of numerous homes calling for the preservation of the area and linking Parker to the project.
“SAY NO TO CHERELLE PARKER’S HIGH DENSITY DEVELOPMENT,” one law sign read.
The proposal has a powerful ally in Parker.
For most development projects in the city, winning the approval of the council member who represents the district where the project would be located is essential to its success. And Parker appeared to be intimately involved with the project.
During The Tribune’s interview with Richardson, the pastor called and spoke with Parker’s spokeswoman, Kyasha Tyson, including about a potential op-ed. During the conversation, Tyson said: “So I can’t talk to the Tribune; I can only talk with you.”
Asked about her office’s involvement with the project in a follow-up email, Parker said the church contacted her in 2018 about the proposal and she advised them to reach out to community stakeholders. She has convened two community meetings between the church and residents since then, and has met with community members opposed to the project, including OLCAA.
The councilwoman added she has submitted a letter to Philadelphia Weekly, which she expects to run next week, that will respond to a constituent’s criticism of the project.
Parker said her district has the third-fewest senior housing facilities in the city and one-third of the population in the 61st Ward, which includes East Oak Lane, is 50 and older.
“This clearly speaks to a need for more senior housing,” the councilwoman said.
As for opponents of the project, Parker said she respects and appreciates the residents of the community.
“My support for this project stems from the clear need for senior housing and the benefits it will bring to this community including new and improved sidewalks, better pedestrian lighting, and an exterior green space that will be open to the public,” Parker said.
City and state officials will determine the fate of the project.
Without a variance to build multi-family housing, the project is stalled. The Zoning Board of Adjustment held a hearing on the variance request in April, which was continued. The board has not yet scheduled a second hearing due to closures ordered by city and state officials to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The PHFA also must decide on the project’s request for tax credits; a ruling is expected in August.
In the meantime, Richardson said church members intend to hold a rally for the project and hold an information session with residents in the coming weeks.
“We’re moving forward,” he said.
Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.