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New digs on the block

South Philadelphia still encompassed swamp and farm land the last time a developer proposed constructing a residential community as big as the one destined for the Navy’s old Capehart Housing property.

Last week, it became public that Westrum Development Company had bought the 27-acre site located along 20th Street between Pattison Avenue and Hartranft Street from the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp.

The Fort Washington-based developer will pay $5.1 million for the property and plans to build 230 homes there. The prices of residences, estimated Bob Rosenthal, Westrum’s director of land acquisition, will start at $185,000 and can exceed $300,000, while including amenities such as multi-car garages, Jacuzzi tubs, marble floors and vaulted ceilings.

Westrum has been eyeing the site since last summer, Rosenthal said. The company has developed other communities in the Roxborough and Fox Chase sections of the city.

"We look for areas that have maintained their value," he said, adding the surrounding homes in Packer Park fit that standard. The site also was attractive because of its proximity to the sports complex, FDR Park, highways and the new shopping center to be built on the old Defense Supply Center, he noted.

But the most enticing feature of all might be that the new homeowners would save money as a result of the city’s 10-year tax abatement applied to newly constructed houses.

Rosenthal predicted the new homes could attract residents who now head across the bridge to South Jersey in search of custom-built houses and private driveways. The development may even draw some former South Philadelphians back to the city, he said.

Westrum was one of three developers, all proposing residential developments, who bid on the land, said John Grady, a senior vice president for the PIDC. The company was selected because of its proposal, Grady said, and because it offered the most money.

When the city acquired the Navy property in March 2000, it had to agree to abide by the McKinney Act, which stated that if the city decided to sell, it first had to offer the land to an organization providing assistance to the homeless. So the city reached an agreement to sell the property and have the proceeds go to homeless-assistance activities around the city, Grady said.

When the deal is finalized, most of the $5.1 million will go the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition, which will establish and administer a trust fund.

Westrum signed the agreement of sale in July. It has until Sept. 30 to inspect the property before paying the first $500,000. Rosenthal said engineers will inspect the existing foundations of the houses, as well as the sewers and waterlines. The balance of the purchase price is due Oct. 31.

"We are optimistic everything is going to work," Rosenthal said, "but that is why you go through the test drive."

Barbara Capozzi, president of the Packer Park Civic Association, is the real-estate agent who will be selling the properties. She said she has a list of current South Jersey residents who are interested in moving back to the city if they can purchase one of the new homes, but otherwise is cautious about discussing the project.

"The news, while very positive, is premature," she said.

Two years ago, Capozzi was working on developing an over-55 community on the Capehart property with Lutheran Services Northeast, but "because of political delays" that Capozzi declined to elaborate on, and a $3-million rise in the property value, she said it became "financially impossible to do a retirement community there."

The plans called for a $40-million development that included 600 moderately priced, ranch-style homes for both independent and assisted living. Capozzi had hired a marketing company to mail a survey to prospective residents, and reported that there was considerable interest from the community.

Westrum considered following through with the plans, Capozzi said, but the cost of the land and the small number of single-story houses that could fit on the property would have driven prices beyond the reach of most retirees.

Still, Capozzi said she’s excited about the potential of new neighbors and wanted to assure current residents that the development would complement the neighborhood.

"Nothing is going to happen there that is not going to be A-number-one for the rest of us," she said.

If all goes according to plan, demolition of the 400 empty Navy homes could begin Nov. 1. Construction of the new houses could begin in January, Rosenthal said, and by late next summer, residents could be moving in.

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