In shift, development may buoy Chinatown
April 5, 2005, Page B01, Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA)
Joseph A. Slobodzian INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
There's not even an artist's rendering to hint at what
developers hope it will become: a neighborhood of more than 300
residences built around the subway tunnel on a lot bounded by
Eighth and Ninth, and Race and Vine Streets.
Right now, the site doesn't look like much: a scrubby,
windblown parking lot bisected diagonally by the station
entrance of the Ridge spur of the Broad Street subway.
None of that worries John Chin. He has what he wants: the
project developer's respect as embodied in an unusual commitment
that 10 percent of those units will be "affordable" and
available to the people of Chinatown.
Chin, 39, executive director of the Philadelphia Chinatown
Development Corp., called such a commitment between builder and
"To even have the conversation is amazing," Chin added.
Chinatown's residents could be forgiven for viewing developers
and the city with skepticism. For decades, urban renewal in
Center City - Independence National Historical Park, the Gallery
shopping mall, the commuter rail tunnel, and the Pennsylvania
Convention Center - has meant bulldozers that ultimately
devoured almost a quarter of the original Chinatown.
Just five years ago, residents fought for months to defeat a
plan to put the Phillies' baseball stadium at 11th and Vine
"This community has always been in the way of something," said
Chin, a financial adviser who grew up in Chinatown and returned
five years ago to head the development group after the legendary
activist Cecilia Moy Yep retired.
Lisa Welsch, director of development for Synterra Ltd., said
the Philadelphia firm hoped to break ground late this year or in
early 2006, with construction lasting up to 36 months. She said
it was too early to discuss such details as its look, the exact
number of units, or what "affordable" will mean.
But what is firm, she said, is Synterra Ltd. owner William A.
Wilson's commitment to Chin and Chinatown, an agreement reached
in talks that began a year ago.
Welsch said Wilson's relationship with Chinatown dates to the
late 1980s, when Synterra was hired for the difficult task of
making the Vine Street Expressway more palatable to the
community it almost doomed.
It was Wilson's firm that designed the shrubs and plantings
along the north-south streets crossing the expressway as well as
red-brick sound barriers emblazoned with the Chinese "shou"
character, which symbolizes long life.
"I think [the people of Chinatown] knew Bill Wilson and that
his word could be trusted," Welsch said. "We have a different
Chinatown's biggest challenge today is not so much loss of land
to major projects as it is gentrification caused by Center
City's hot real estate market.
Fueled by low interest rates and the city's 10-year real
estate tax abatement on new residential construction and
conversions, Center City added 6,436 housing units from 1998 to
2004, with 6,000 more units to come, the Center City District's
2005 report said.
The average Center City home-sale price went from $155,958 in
1985 to $525,960 last year.
Chinatown has lagged behind nearby neighbors in this
explosive growth. According to the Center City District report,
the median residential sale price increased 9 percent from 2003
to 2004, to $386,000, for homes and 3 percent, to $207,000, for
During this time, there were increases of 2 percent for homes
and 25 percent for condominiums in Northern Liberties to the
north, and to the east in Old City, increases of 29 percent for
homes and 4 percent for condominiums.
The pressure is only building. Across Eighth Street from the
Chinatown site, the MetroClub condominium complex is being born
in the shell of long-vacant Metropolitan Hospital, with 130
units selling from about $260,000 to more than $1 million.
Chin said the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. has
experience in making mixed-income residential sites work.
On the other side of Vine on North Ninth, Chin pointed to
Hing Wah Yuen, a 51-unit complex built in the late 1990s that
includes families of mixed income, from those renting with
"Section 8" aid to those paying full market rates.
Also north of Vine, the agency is sponsoring similar
developments as part of a plan that Chin says will take
Chinatown north to Spring Garden Street.
If the commitment between Synterra and Chinatown is small in
numbers, it is large in symbolism for Chinatown's leaders in
regard to whether their community remains viable or becomes just
a theme park for tourists.
Chin remembers the Chinatown of his youth, a vibrant community
even when it coexisted with a mushroom crop of corner bars and
nude photo "studios" and the Trocadero Theater when it was a
"What made us special was the culture and the people who
lived here," Chin said. "This has always been a gateway for new
immigrants, and if we're going to continue to be successful, we
must have affordable housing."