Liddonfield changes coming

Upper Holmesburg residents rejoiced in July 2012 when the Philadelphia Housing Authority board endorsed a plan to transform the former Liddonfield public housing project into a new athletic campus for Holy Family University. Yet, the site looks no different today than it did back then.

In fact, little has changed on the 32-acre tract at Torresdale Avenue and Megargee Street since 2010, when PHA razed more than 400 apartment units with the help of state funding. Last week, Upper Holmesburg Civic Association President Stan Cywinski assured neighbors that the Holy Family development is still on track.

Speaking at the monthly UHCA meeting on March 20, Cywinski promised to share more details about the project at the next UHCA meeting on Thursday, April 17. All UHCA meetings are held at St. Dominic’s Marian Hall, 8532 Frankford Ave., and begin at 7 p.m.

“Trust me, we will have lots of information available,” said Cywinski.

The civic association president said he recently spoke with the lead developer, John Parsons of BSI Construction, although Cywinski was not at liberty to discuss details of the conversation publicly. Cywinski did reveal that another BSI-controlled property, the Academy Recycling site at 8901 Torresdale Ave., is also in line for major changes. That 13.3-acre property is directly across Torresdale Avenue from Liddonfield.

“The scuttlebutt is (Academy Recycling) is gone and it’s going to be something we like,” Cywinski said.

Parsons and his partner at BSI, Charles Calvanese, have not replied to telephone messages left by the Northeast Times.

New information about Liddonfield has been difficult to glean since July 20, 2012, when PHA Commissioner Estelle Richman, acting as the lone member of the PHA board, adopted a resolution to award redevelopment rights to a consortium led by BSI. The resolution concluded a months-long bidding process. Yet, PHA officials said at the time that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would have to approve a formal sale of the site to the BSI consortium. PHA is a public entity that receives federal funding from HUD.

The sale was still pending in March 2013, when Cywinski reported at a UHCA meeting that the developers hoped to wrap up the deal and build new athletic fields on the site in time for the spring 2014 university sports season. The civic president cited Parsons and Sister Francesca Onley, the Holy Family president, as his sources.

Last November, Cywinski reported that he had additional conversations with the developer, who told him that the sale could be completed by the end of the calendar year. It was not.

In January, an aide to state Sen. Mike Stack reported during a UHCA meeting that Stack had requested Gov. Tom Corbett to allocate state funding to the redevelopment project. The 2014 Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program has $300 million in available grant money, the Stack aide said. Typically, grants are awarded in several phases throughout the year.

During the February UHCA meeting, Cywinski said that the developer may be facing a March 31 deadline to commence the project. Under the terms of the PHA contract, the consortium agreed to pay $4.2 million to PHA for the land. In addition, Holy Family agreed to award $1.04 million in academic scholarships to PHA resident students over 10 years.

Reached by telephone on Monday, Sister Francesca stressed that Holy Family is not a member of the development consortium, but rather is a third party that would take possession of the new athletic facilities once complete. The university president added that it remains the sole responsibility of BSI and its partners to finance the purchase of the property.

“We were approached a couple of years ago. We were told by John Parsons that it would not cost us money,” Sister Francesca said. “This proposal was never a responsibility of Holy Family University. It was always John Parsons’ project presented to Holy Family University.”

Sister Francesca added that the university is still interested in the athletic fields development and in working with the community on the project.

In addition to the athletic facilities, the plan also calls for the construction of apartment-style residences and retail shops along Torresdale Avenue, along with a 64-unit housing complex for low-income seniors along Cottage Street. Contrary to prior news reports, the university would have no ownership or management of the Torresdale Avenue residences, Sister Francesca said.

During UHCA meetings, neighbors have raised concerns that the initial project would not materialize and that PHA would instead use the site for a new public housing project.

Built in 1955, the original Liddonfield was initially used as transitional housing for military veterans and their families. In time, it became a low-income housing complex notorious for crime and drug use. Neighbors lobbied government officials for decades to shut down the facility. ••