Mosque in Old Kensington snatches attention, visually and politically

Al-Aqsa Islamic Academy
Since 1989, the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society in Old Kensington has been an anchor for Philadelphia’s Palestinian Arab community. The society’s community development arm has taken flak of late for receiving occupied land from the city through eminent domain for an affordable housing development. Photo from Al-Aqsa.

Valuable criticism is surfacing around the city’s recent use of eminent domain powers to seize land around Jefferson and Cadwallader streets in Old Kensington, where an abundance of for-sale lots are already begging for development.

As local media outlets brace for vitriol in their comment sections regarding the proposed Arabic-styled affordable-housing plan, maybe it’s time to take an apolitical look at the awesome exterior of the nearby Al-Aqsa Islamic Society, which is involved with the housing project that has generated the criticism.

When confronted with the vibrantly colored 30,000-square-foot building, which sits among traditional rowhomes and shoddy infrastructure, passersby can’t help but wonder, “How did that get here?”

"Doorways to Peace" detail
The colorful mosaics that decorate the society’s home, a former furniture warehouse, are the result of an interfaith project called “Doorways to Peace” that brought neighborhood residents and the city’s Arab Muslim community together.

The former furniture warehouse began its transformation from a giant, red Lego block to an aesthetically trippy Sunni worship center in 1991. In 2004, the building began mosaic treatment with an interfaith-based, nonprofit renovation of its façade, assisted by the always busy (and sometimes reviled) Mural Arts Program.

Doorways to Peace detail 2
More detail from the “Doorways to Peace” mosaic.

Al-Aqsa, which contains a mosque, school and grocery and serves as a cultural hub for the city’s Arab Muslim community, takes its name from the third holiest site in Islamic tradition (the first is Mecca, said to be the birthplace the religion’s founder, Muhammad; and Medina, where Muslims believe he was buried).

An occasional spokesperson for Al-Aqsa, Marwan Kreidie, is also the executive director of the nonprofit Arab American Community Development Corporation, which in September 2012 proposed the aforementioned neighboring 45-unit plan that includes housing for low-income families. (It’s tentatively named “Tajdeed,” the Arabic word for renewal.) The plan has recently conjured conversation about government overreach and xenophobia.

Putting local politics aside for a moment: Al-Aqsa looks really cool.

Mosaic detail images from PhilaPlace


Mixed-income project to revive nearly empty Francisville block

1700 block Folsom Street
From this…

A large vacant lot in the 1700 block of Folsom Street is about to developed in Francisville. The Philadelphia City Planning Commission approved a project by developer Jonathan Weiss, of Equinox Management and Construction, at its Jan. 15 meeting. The project will erect eight rental units in two multi-family buildings and 21 single-family units on the site.

The project intends to use environmentally friendly materials and will provide parking for up to 11 cars and 30 bicycles. Green roofs and solar panels will also be installed to make the buildings more energy efficient.

Rendering of proposed Folsom Street project
…to this: An environmentally friendly mixed-income housing development will bring big change to a Francisville block and accelerate the community’s revitalization.

The project was one of six proposed for the site after Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority began seeking proposals last May. The PRA selected Weiss’ project as they considered it to be the best fit for the neighborhood.

The location is ideal for a residential project of this size, with the Francisville Recreation Center nearby and a subway station just blocks away at Broad Street and Fairmount Avenue.

The 18,000-square-foot lot currently contains four homes that are owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority. Weiss is in talks with the PHA to incorporate the existing homes into his project.

Closeup of Folsom Street project
A closer view of the proposed development from roughly the same angle as the photo above. Developer Jonathan Weiss needs only to acquire land from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority to begin work on the project.

The project will be mixed income, as housing units will be sold at both market rate and affordable rate, the latter designated for families earning less than $64,000 a year.

Weiss plans to start construction immediately, possibly offering the units by the fall. But before Weiss can sell units, he must first officially acquire the land from the city, a process that could be completed by mid-spring.

With another large mixed-income project nearby, Francisville continues is residential growth. With these large projects offering affordable housing, Francisville will continue to be an economically diverse neighborhood for years to come.

Photo of Folsom Street lot by the author; architect’s renderings from

Affordable housing in Old Kensington: Fine, but at what cost?

1326-36 N Mascher St
This empty lot in Old Kensington is set to host 18 new townhouses. We appreciate the city’s concern that affordable housing survive as the neighborhood redevelops, but couldn’t it have found empty land to build on itself?

It’s been widely noted that Old Kensington, or South Kensington, has plenty of empty land to build on. As much as one-fourth of the land in the area sat empty as of last year, and the local community organization, South Kensington Community Partners, has been aggressive about both keeping empty lots clean and encouraging redevelopment of vacant land. (We’ve posted our share of articles about the recent uptick in development of vacant land in Old Kensington as well.)

So it is puzzling indeed to learn that the City of Philadelphia is taking lots in active use, owned by local residents, and handing them over to another community group that wants to build affordable housing in the area.

One of the residents whose land has been seized by the city, pizzeria owner Meletios Anthanasiadis, has been quite vocal in criticizing what he sees as an unjustified land grab that is depriving small landowners and tenants of their livelihoods. Anthanasiadis owns seven of the lots that the city has taken via eminent domain so that the Arab American Development Corporation can build a new affordable housing development. The lots are leased to local business owners who use them as garages or accessory space for businesses they run, including a repair shop and an antique auto restoration business.

Anthanasiadis told the CityPaper“They’re displacing a small business. They’re costing people their jobs.”

Both Anthanasiadis and many of the other landowners whose lots the city seized via the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA) either planned to redevelop them themselves when conditions permitted or actively use them for their own purposes, For a few, their properties represented security in their later years.

The Arab-American Development Corporation’s planned project has much to recommend it: it’s an energy-efficient, green, affordable housing project that will be built by one of the city’s best and most innovative builders, Onion Flats. But with so much empty land still going begging in Old Kensington, is there any good reason for the city to use its condemnation powers to deprive small landowners of land they use in order to benefit a favored developer, regardless how noble the project? Why didn’t the PRA work with SKCP to identify idle land that could be assembled for the project?

Kensington property owners: The city is stealing our land via eminent domain (UPDATED) (Naked City blog|CityPaper)
Philly pizza shop owner says housing project will steal his piece of the dream (Newsworks|WHYY)

TOD, affordable senior housing coming to Juniata Park

NE Catholic HS
The Mariana Bracetti Academy charter school will move into this building, home to Northeast Catholic High School for Boys from 1928 until 2010…

Thanks to projects like Paseo Verde next to Temple University, transit-oriented development (TOD) seems to be popping up in a number of Philly neighborhoods.  Another example looks to be coming to Juniata Park, where developer Ingerman Group plans to build 52 new affordable senior housing units on a site adjacent to the Erie-Torresdale Market-Frankford Line station. But it might be the project’s adaptive reuse story that will get residents in the Near Northeast particularly excited—the units will be located in the famed Northeast Catholic High School, bringing a large portion of the now-vacant building back to life.

NE Catholic HS Rectory
…while its former rectory will become senior housing under a plan recently announced by the Ingerman Group.

In June 2010, due to declining enrollment and rising costs, Northeast Catholic shuttered its doors after nearly 90 years of operation. Shortly thereafter, the Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter School bought the campus and began renovations. The adjacent rectory was left vacant.

That’s where the Ingerman Group stepped in, deciding to turn the former rectory, which had always been a residence for priest-teachers at the Catholic school, into affordable senior housing units.

The entire rectory will be repurposed and an additional story will be added to make the project financially feasible. Rents will range from $400 to $850 for one- and two-bedroom units. 20 parking spaces will be provided on site.

The project cleared a recent zoning change hurdle and is currently waiting on state financing from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency. If and when that comes through, city funding will also be secured and construction documents can get under way.

Developers hope to start construction in September 2013, with residents moving in 12 to 14 months later. Floor and site plans appear below.


First Floor

Second Floor

Third Floor

Fourth Floor

Front elevation showing relation of fourth floor to existing structure

Sample units

Site plan

Photos by Sandy Smith; plans via Ingerman Group

Work begins on John C. Anderson Homes in Wash West

Jacob Fisher, Brian Hudson and Mike O'Brien
Pennrose Properties Development Officer Jacob Fisher, Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency Executive Director Brian Hudson and State Rep. Mike O’Brien (D-175th District) present the symbolic check representing the public commitment of funds to build the LGBT-friendly senior housing development now called the John C. Anderson Homes.

A veritable Who’s Who of Philly political players took turns praising each other and the man who brought them all together, Philadelphia Gay News publisher and Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld Fund president Mark Segal, on Friday, Nov. 9, when ground was officially broken for a groundbreaking senior housing project at 249 S. 13th St. in Washington Square West’s Gayborhood.

The project, whose new name – the John C. Anderson Homes – was announced at the groundbreaking, is the second LGBT-friendly senior housing project in the United States and the first to be financed with public funds for low-income housing.

The $19.5 million development will be a six-story, mixed-use structure containing 56 one-bedroom apartments surrounding a 5,000-square-foot enclosed courtyard. The building will also contain multi-purpose spaces for use by both residents and the surrounding community along with 2,000 square feet of commercial space on the ground floor, fronting on 13th Street. $11 million of the total comes in the form of city, state and federal grants and tax credits.

Pennrose Properties, one of the nation’s largest developers of affordable housing, will oversee its construction. Jacob Fisher, development officer at Pennrose, said this project is “a logical extension of the mission and founding principles of our company, which was founded 30 years ago here in Philadelphia.”

Shovels at groundbreakingA large white tent was draped over 13th Street for the groundbreaking beside a large hole with several earth-moving vehicles surrounded by a chain link fence. A dozen rainbow-colored shovels stood in a mound of dirt on the construction site, waiting to be held by the likes of U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D-1st District),  International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 Business Manager John Dougherty, Mayor Michael Nutter, and City Councilman Mark Squilla (D-1st District).

Pioneers at the groundbreaking
Joining Mark Segal (center) in the ceremonial tossing of dirt were a collection of LGBT civil rights pioneers, identified from left to right below.

After their turn, a group of Segal’s fellow pioneers in the LGBT civil rights movement tossed their own shovelfuls: Randy Wicker, who led the world’s first gay-rights protest march, against a Selective Service office in 1958; Mike Levery, the first openly gay attorney to be admitted to the bar; Jim Fouratt, one of the founders of the Gay Liberation Front; Michael Knolls and Mark Horn, founders along with Segal of Gay Youth, and Ada Bello, a veteran of the annual “Reminder Day” demonstrations that took place in Philadelphia on July 4 from 1965 to 1969.

John C. Anderson, for whom the development is named, was an at-large member of City Council elected in 1979 who played a key role in passing the city ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, one of the first in the nation to do so, in 1982. Both Nutter and State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams credited Anderson, who died in office in 1984, as a mentor and guide to their own political careers, and Williams also praised the openly gay African-American man for combating stereotypes in both the gay and black communities.

Other officials in attendance attested to Segal’s persistence in seeing the project through to reality, none more memorably than former Mayor and Gov. Edward G. Rendell. “Mark got this project done through his dedication, his passion, and his overall obnoxiousness,” he said. “It’s not only a good thing for the [LGBT] community but also a good thing for the city.”

In his remarks, Segal noted that the LGBT civil rights movement “is building a community. Just as there is an African-American community and a Jewish community, there’s also a gay community. But the last frontier is dealing with our endangered senior citizens. No one has cared about our senior citizens, and this is an attempt to change that.”

Anti-discrimination laws prohibit gay-only housing, but projects can be made friendly toward gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people through location, marketing and provision of staff and services that are tailored to their concerns and needs. The nation’s first gay-friendly affordable senior housing facility opened in Los Angeles in 2007.

LGBT community leaders from around the country say the need for such housing is great since many seniors fear discrimination or disrespect by health care workers and senior housing residents.

-By Sandy Smith and CyclingAboutTown for

Photos by Patrick Hagerty