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In shift, development may buoy Chinatown

April 5, 2005, Page B01, Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA)

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.

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.

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 neighbors remarkable.

"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 Streets.

"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 approach."

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 condominiums.

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 strip-tease palace.

"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."


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