On the humid and rainy Thursday morning of May 23, a large group of Germantowners, primarily seniors, boarded a charter bus for a trip to City Hall, where they sought to see the next chapter of the battle for the Germantown YWCA.

Yesterday’s hearing found David S. Thomas, the President and CEO of the Philadelphia Housing Development Company (PHDC) and chair of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA), on the stand as an evidentiary witness at the Court of Common Pleas in room 453.

This hearing follows the late March hearing, where Judge Ann Butchart heard developer Ken Wenstein’s request for conservatorship of the building.

Executive Director at Center in the Park (CIP) Renee Cunningham rented the bus to take the group into Center City. Why did she want to have a group of neighbors at the hearing? “[The Germantown YWCA] means a lot to Center in the Park, Maple Village, and Germantown,” she said.

While the hearing started at 9:30 a.m., the bus would depart at 7:30 a.m. and arrive at City Hall around 8 a.m. Cunningham says, “I wanted us to be first because I wanted us to send a message.”

The last hearing found the legal team for Weinstein, who submitted a Request for Proposals (RFP) and was rejected in 2015, making their case that after being vacant for two decades, the Germantown YWCA needed rehabilitation because of the blight it is causing the surrounding properties and overall neighborhood. Some things referenced were trash, penetrated fences, and young children trespassing.

Weinstein’s team established the legal basis of their argument, citing Act 135. This law states that a party in interest can request the court to appoint a conservator to take control of a blighted, substandard, or abandoned property and make necessary repairs. The conservator is then tasked with the responsibility of restoring the property to a safe and functional state and ensuring it is put to productive use.

Eight years ago, Columbus-based developer Keith B. Key (KBK), who has had overwhelming support from 8th District Councilmember Cindy Bass, was selected by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA) to redevelop the property. However, Weinstein took this action after almost a decade of no results.

CIP member Felicia Coward was one of more than 30 people who attended the hearing. She moved to the neighborhood in 2003 and participated at the Y in the final days before closure. 

After becoming a steward with the Friends of Vernon Park, she says she began to pay closer attention to the property right next to the park. She believes Weinstein should be considered for the revamp.

Suzanne Ponsen and Don Mädche rode the bus together. They, too, support Weinstein’s conservatorship of the Y.

“I’ve watched it decline,” Ponsen shared. “Twenty-five years has gone by, and it hasn’t been restored or maintained in the way that it should have been. And I’m disappointed. It could already be a senior living space, but it [isn’t].”

She continued: “I wished [KBK] well at one point. I wanted to make sure that it was done because [the Y became] a bit of an eyesore, and also it was a symbol [of civil rights] in Germantown that we all appreciate.”

Neighbors Karen Flamer, Joanne Mapoma, and Suzanne Ponsen at City Hall. (GIH | Rasheed Ajamu)

While some rode from Germantown to City Hall in favor of the conservatorship, others in the courtroom took a different stance. Executive Director of the Johnson House, Cornelia Swinson, who came with members from the Johnson House board, says that the Johnson House wants to be on record specifically against Act 135 overall, not just in this specific case.

She explains her positioning: “We feel this is being used as a tool by developers. And often this happens in marginalized communities, whether Black [or] white, and based on research done by Penn, and articles from the Inquirer about the impact on those communities, that it’s a disservice to the community.”

All rose for Judge Butchart at 9:33 a.m., and the second part of the evidentiary hearing began. It lasted about two hours with a five-minute break.

PRA attorney Henry Noye opened the hearing, questioning Thomas about the purpose of the PRA (elimination of blight and efforts to support the city in redeveloping areas) and PHDC (facilitates development in underserved areas where developers don’t usually go), which merged in 2018, and his time with both. 

Thomas says that while the merger only recognizes PHDC, they still conduct business for the PRA. 

Thomas was then questioned about public knowledge about the building, such as the damage caused by two fires in early vacant years, the transfers of ownership since the Germantown Settlement fiasco, and the aforementioned RFP histories.

He seemed to answer these questions confidently. Thomas seemed meek only when asked whether he had heard of any safety concerns from the community from Weinstein’s attorney, Richard Vanderslice.

Vanderslice said there have been at least 15 community meetings about the Germantown Y, some of which have addressed safety concerns. Thomas said he’s only been to maybe a couple of these meetings, but he only heard concerns about the timeline, not safety. He said if he had, they would have been addressed.

Vanderslice’s final questions revolved around the efforts to make the building look more suitable after the March hearing, where he asked Thomas if they had commissioned workers to remove truckloads of debris mentioned in the last hearing, such as trash and penetrated fences.

While Thomas says folks were commissioned to do so, he is unsure how much debris was removed from the property. To get more specific information on that matter, Thomas says attorneys would have to ask PHDC Carpenter Superintendent Joseph Ziccardi, whom Thomas called his “informant” and who is one of the next witnesses to take the stand.

Before ending, Noye asked if these actions aligned with the PRA’s original goals and mission. Thomas said yes.

At around 11:35 a.m., Judge Butchart gave notice that only about 15 more minutes were available to question other witnesses. For time purposes, Noye agreed to schedule a third part of this hearing, which will happen on Thursday, September 12th, at 1:30 p.m.

Germantown neighbor Ann Doley, who has helped fight for the Y’s revitalization for years, said this trial could have been avoidable. She says that the power Councilwoman Bass has over development in the district, known as councilmanic prerogative, is the critical reason the community has yet to see the building redeveloped.

“What’s the point of requesting proposals if [Councilmember Bass is] just going to reject everybody unless they’re KBK?” she asked.

*On sentiments related to councilmanic prerogative and her control of the building, Councilmember Bass said the following to GIH: “There seems to be some misinformation circulating regarding the Act 135 petition currently being litigated and my support of the developer, KBK, and their efforts to redevelop the Germantown YWCA. The Germantown YWCA building is owned by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, and the Act 135 dispute is between the PRA and the petitioner to resolve.”

The 8th District Councilmember also said that there will be another community meeting this summer to provide neighbors with more updates and infomation about the project.

Cunningham says she remains hopeful and “hopes everything will turn out to favor the community.”

*This story was updated with Councilmember Bass’ response to claims around councilmanic prerogative, which we weren’t able to capture at the hearing. We thank the Councilmember’s office for providing a response to community input.