The stately brownstone mansion at Leiper and Arrott streets is cold and dark, the front yard-turned-parking-lot is snowy, and the intersection is quiet though it is nearly rush hour at the nearby Margaret-Orthodox El stop. The Northwood Frankford Community Y is, like me on that waning winter afternoon, waiting.
The Y has been vacant since 2009 and its recent history is a tangle of failures, endurance, and stubborn hope. Once a community landmark, the Y has become a source of consternation among neighbors, faced down foreclosure, and suffered a leadership collapse. But now a group of neighbors is working against long odds to give this spot new life.
The Y property is half 1860s brownstone mansion and half 1970s athletic center. The mansion with a mansard roof and gracious porch was once home to prominent local mill families (Garsed and Bromley to name two). It became a YWCA in the 1940s and was a vital community center for decades. In 1975 the blocky addition was tacked onto the south side, adding a huge swimming pool, weight room, gymnasium and locker rooms.
The New Frankford Community Y, an independent nonprofit, took over the building in the mid-1990s and operated it as a membership-based athletic facility. Then in 2009 the Y closed its doors for financial reasons, when its state funding dried up.
The Y swiftly went from community hub to problem property. Vandals wasted no time ripping apart the interior, stealing copper pipes, radiators, and rooftop HVAC units for scrap. The mahogany banister was smashed and the pool was tagged. Vagrants occasionally camped out and a family of raccoons colonized the gym. The roof started to leak.
But after five years of hand wringing, there are glimmers of hope now.
Kristy Schneider flipped on the lights (no small victory) and took me through the buildings. The mansion’s roof was recently repaired, thanks in large part to a grant from state Rep. John Taylor. New HVAC units wait in the basement for installation, and now workers have started repairing some of the damaged interior. The athletic side needs work – the roof over the basketball court leaks, a bathroom was ripped apart, and everything needs cleaning and fresh paint.
Local attorney Frank Bennett is leading efforts to repair and repurpose the Y after taking an active interest in the property as a Northwood Civic Association board member. The Y has been a frequent topic at civic association meetings in Northwood and Frankford in recent years. Neighbors expressed concerns about the building’s safety and its historic significance. More worry came in 2010 when Beneficial Bank initiated foreclosure proceedings over debt owed, and the property was scheduled for sheriff’s sale. Some called for the building’s demolition.
Redevelopment proposals came and went, including ideas to reuse it as a fancy athletic club or as part of Sankofa Academy Charter School. Despite nibbles on the building, the more it was vandalized the less people were interested.
The building’s uncertain future drew attention from the Historical Society of Frankford as well as the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, which listed the Y on its 2011 Endangered Properties List. The building, though historic, is not listed on the Philadelphia or National Registers of Historic Places.
“When it became vacant, there were me and three other people riding by that mansion, just watching it wondering what we could do,” said Debbie Klak of the Historical Society who feared the worst. “Losing that mansion would be devastating to the community, not just because of its ties to mill history but when it became the Y what it represented… To lose that you’re losing a great deal of what happened in Frankford.”
In addition to the property’s deteriorating physical condition, there were serious concerns about outstanding debts and the organization’s leadership after the Y closed, explained District Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez in an email.
The New Frankford Community Y’s board had disintegrated, and in 2011 the Y's longtime director Terry Tobin died. Left behind were murky questions about the Y’s management and rumors of misappropriation.
In 2012 a new board assumed leadership of the New Frankford Community Y nonprofit, and changed the property’s name to the Northwood Frankford Community Y. By then Frank Bennett was deeply involved. Bennett got the lone active board member to approve reconstituting the board with seven new board representatives he recruited from surrounding neighborhoods, including Frankford, Northwood, Summerdale, and Juniata.
The sheriff sale scheduled in 2010 was delayed in 2011, but the outstanding utility and mortgage debts remained problematic. Bennett started negotiating with Beneficial Bank to stop foreclosure proceedings.
“Our concern was that the bank would have sold it from under us,” said Frankford Civic Association president Pete Specos, who now sits on the Y’s new board. Specos also echoed a fear I heard often, “In this area we’re very prone with drug rehab houses. Our concern was that someone would buy the property and open it as a rehab. We’re already saturated.”
Bennett ultimately convinced Beneficial to forgive about $200,000 in debt on the property. Last year the bank signed a satisfaction agreement for the mortgage, which gave full control of the building to the nonprofit’s new board.
When the board announced news about the mortgage satisfaction in November, Bennett also announced that his board voted to give him a long-term lease to use the mansion side of the building.
In exchange for paying $1 a year in rent for 99 years, Bennett agreed to take on the restoration of the mansion. He is personally paying for critical repairs in order to make the mansion functional enough to house his law office and hopefully attract other tenants. The long-term lease puts Bennett at the center of decisions about who uses the building going forward.
If a $1 per year, 99-year lease sounds like a sweetheart deal, Bennett says consider the building’s condition and the cost to rehab the place.
“I’m bothered by the idea that some people think that I got a deal. Nobody would ever think about stepping in this mess,” said Bennett. “Sometimes you get what you want, and it’s the worst thing you can get.”
Specos acknowledged that some people expressed concern that Bennett got a 99-year lease for next to nothing. “But the problem is to restore the mansion side alone… due to damage done, it’s going to cost $250,000-$300,000. So we exchanged rent for restoration. Fair, right?”
Bennett estimates he’ll easily sink $45,000 just to get the building’s systems fully functional again and prepare the mansion’s first floor for office use. After that he can secure insurance. So far pipes are fixed, and crews are working on finishing plasterwork and painting. The next big move will be to reconstruct the central hall’s wrecked banister. Then maybe they’ll be able to attract other tenants.
Bennett and Specos said the board has tried to find tenants, and even engaged a local real estate agent to help. But, as Bennett said, “Nobody stepped up to the plate and nobody wants it.”
Councilwoman Quiñones-Sánchez disagrees.
“There were several organizations interested, but the lack of clarity regarding leadership and the legal status of the organization creates an obstacle,” she said, noting that she has yet to see any of the formal documents related to the nonprofit’s reorganization, Bennett’s lease, or debt clearance. (A spokesperson for Quiñones-Sánchez declined to elaborate on the record specifically which local organizations were actively interested.)
Though the mortgage is satisfied, the board still has to settle outstanding judgments for delinquent gas bills amounting to more than $10,000.
It’s clear that to move forward the new board must address lingering doubts about credibility and capacity after the nonprofit’s virtual collapse a few years back. For now, the board wants to look forward.
“There were some discretions,” Specos said, acknowledging poor management before the current board’s tenure. “Whatever happened, all of the past board members are gone or dead. There’s no point in pushing the issues.”
The board’s mission this year is to try to find groups in need of space who are willing to help underwrite the cost of some repairs in exchange.
“We’re not looking to make money on it,” Specos said. He thinks that the athletic side of the property could be put back into service as a shared resource for nearby charter schools or after-school programs.
“The property is a beautiful historic building that requires significant investment in order to be repurposed. Outside of a reputable well-resourced nonprofit, I am not sure any start-up nonprofit or private entity can invest the needed resources to bring the building up to code, ” Councilwoman Quiñones-Sánchez said, adding that she hopes to see a transparent public process around planning the Y’s future.
One process that could have helped plan for the Northwood Frankford Community Y was GRAY AREA, a preservation project that focuses on creating public dialogue around disused but historic community assets. Elise Vider, the project director, said the Y was selected as a GRAY AREA study site for its significance as well as its potential to stimulate neighborhood revitalization. But GRAY AREA reluctantly retreated from the Y after Frank Bennett got that 99-year lease.
“With a program and reuse now identified for at least a part of the historic building, the possibilities for wide-ranging thinking and experimentation were constrained,” Vider explained. “Also, we quickly became aware of at least some degree of community disagreement and rancor about this latest development.”
If someone has a bright idea for the property, Bennett says come knocking. He even said he’s more than willing to walk away if someone else can present a viable plan for the Y. He is just trying to stop the bleeding.
As board member Kristy Schneider told me during our tour, “I think that the building would just sit here in ruin if we did nothing.”
For now the board has no clear development, operations, or funding strategy. Instead Bennett and his board are pressing onward, operating on a bit of blind faith, hopeful that through their efforts and Bennett’s willingness to spend his own money the Y’s dereliction can be reversed.
Change at the Y “has to start with one person,” Bennett told me. “I’m betting a lot on it.”
Ashley writes and edits Eyes on the Street. She has a special interest in preservation, neighborhoods, and all things public – from policy to art. Ashley holds masters degrees in City and Regional Planning and Historic Preservation from PennDesign.
Ashley has lived in 12 zip codes that she can think of, including neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, New York and Philadelphia. She is proud to call 19147 home.
Find Ashley on twitter @ashleyjhahn.