In a conversation with Jeff Graybill, the project engineer for the Philadelphia Housing Authority, his enthusiasm about his current undertaking is nothing less than contagious. Graybill is presently leading a construction site at 22nd and Venango streets in the Nicetown/Tioga neighborhood of North Philadelphia, and he’s excited about it. The building, being created by the Dale Corp., is to be Plymouth Hall Apartments, a 53-unit senior housing center, an attractive structure which will help re-populate an area, which has suffered population flights in recent years. What Graybill can’t stop talking about, though, is that the building will be a green, sustainable one, with several cutting-edge features.
On a sight-seeing drive through this neighborhood, modernity, architectural innovation and societal stewardship aren’t necessarily concepts that immediately spring to mind. These sections of the city are alarmingly full of vacant and dilapidated buildings. Houses, which are seized or suffer fires, often remain empty and boarded up. Commercial spaces are abandoned and no new businesses are drawn to fill the buildings in an area with an average income below $30,000 per year. Community centers that have lost funding close down and leave only skeletons of their edifices.
Beneath the surface, however, several exciting trends in housing and construction are happening, and Plymouth Hall is a prime example. Among the most interesting features that the building will have is the “green roof,” a soil and flora covered roof. With a green roof, Graybill explains that “instead of all the water running off of the building and just going into the sewer system, the water can be re-collected and used for watering plants and cleaning around the property. It also puts a lot less demand on the structure.”
Even the construction process itself is driven by the goals of sustainability. The senior center, which previously occupied the space, burned in a four-alarm fire in 2004, but the foundation and several structural elements of the original edifice are being maintained using thoughtful architectural design. The debris, too, is being given to a local construction site to be used as “clean fill” in a pit. All of the wood and biodegradable will be broken down and used for mulch, among other things.
This undertaking, Graybill says, is “100 percent a stimulus project.” The Housing
Authority is using funds from the Environmental Resource Associates and a PECO grant for energy initiatives. The authority has two green buildings in place and is installing new, highly efficient solar panels at a senior center in Mantua. Plymouth Hall will not feature solar energy because, as a feasibility study showed, it is more efficient and cost effective to concentrate more solar panels in one location than to spread them out among several.
Constructions like this are not only sound environmentally, but they also economically sustainable.
“Sure, it’s good press to do green projects like this,” Graybill says, “but it also saves the Housing Authority a lot of money.” One of the biggest expenditures for the organization is utility payment and features like the green roof and solar panels conserve money, which would be spent on water and electricity bills.
Also extremely significant in an impoverished neighborhood, this project is providing employmentl. Many of the employees on the site were hired from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Section Three program, which provides job training and contract opportunities to low-income individuals. Perhaps most importantly, this project is employing residents of this specific neighborhood, putting money back into a diminishing and struggling community.
Diane Denson, a Montgomery County correctional officer who lives in the neighborhood and owns two community centers which were recently boarded up due to loss of funding, says programs like Section Three are vital to the renovation of the area. “This is our community, and we love it,” Denson says, “but we need some help. There’s just no work here.” Denson explains that programs like this are necessary to employ local residents who are considered unemployable. For many of these individuals, it is because they have recently been incarcerated. The Plymouth Hall construction site is setting a highly visible example for other companies that are considering hiring from Section Three.
New housing buildings like the Plymouth Hall Center are also key for spurring other local businesses. Robin Lopez owns the R.J. Food Market, a grocery store across the street from the construction site, and he can’t wait for the building to be completed in early next year. “As soon as places like this open up,” Lopez says, “business goes up. If nobody lives here, nobody shops here. This area has good things about it, but it can be hard to run a business. Many of my customers come to the counter with a bunch of things but no money. They think that the government should pay for it.”
This project is part of an important but under-publicized trend in low-income neighborhoods of Philadelphia. Not far away, at the Mercy Neighborhood Ministries at 20th and Venango streets, a community center is operating out of a building that was awarded a silver standing by the Leadership in Energy in Environmental Design (LEED) organization. The Housing Authority hasn’t yet applied for LEED certification because, as Graybill explains, the application process can be costly. The steps that have been taken in Plymouth Hall and other projects, however, are certainly deserving of recognition for not only their environmental advances, but for their impact on the community as well.
The Philadelphia Sustainability Awards define sustainability as “a balance between the economy, environment, and society.” The Plymouth Hall project clearly aspire to this ideal, bettering life for local residents not just inside the building’s walls, but outside them as well. For a look at another trend in Nicetown/Tioga housing see this story.
[soundslide url=”https://smcsites.com/soundslides/uploads/sp1031alleghenyfinalsoundslide” height=550 width=600]