Germantown: Suspicious Fire at the YWCA

Germantown YWCA front door with violation sign

The pouring rain today drenched anything that might be left after a fire at the YWCA on Germantown Avenue next to Vernon Park.

A local business owner said she thinks she knows who set the YWCA ablaze last night that injured two firefighters. She asked to remain anonymous.

For over a month she said she watched as two teenage boys who squatted in the YWCA. They had been kicked out of the Covenant House, a homeless youth center on East Armat Street, she said. She reported the pair to police numerous times about the activities. Once the police followed them inside, but no arrest was made.

YWCA the day after a fire

“The building has been vacant for about seven or eight years. Once I told the police the kids were in there and they somehow locked the police out. I guess they [the police] were scared to go in there or something. I told them [the police] there was going to be a fire or somebody is going to be raped in there,” she said.

But her real concern was why they were homeless in the first place, “Kids will be kids, don’t put them out on the street at 16 or 17.”

The 14th Police District and the Covenant House could not be reached immediately for comment.

Authorities said someone lit a fire on the third floor of the building around 5 p.m. Wednesday and the blaze took over destroying the top floors. The cause was determined as arson. Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers said the police found squatters in the building last week and suspected it could be related.

Center in the Park, a senior center in Vernon Park, is located within a few yards of the YWCA. “We are glad that the two firefighters are not seriously injured, we had staff on site during the fire—there is a senior center right next door to it [YWCA]. It’s really a shame,” said Associate Director Renee Cunningham-Ginchereau.

Local Resident Barel Walker

Local resident Barel Walker said he’s been frustrated about the Y for years. “I’m sure they have insurance, but what are you going to do with that building now? It just doesn’t represent Germantown.”

The YWCA is owned by Germantown Settlement, an almost 120-year-old social service agency. Settlement is run by Emmanuel Freeman and is currently in bankruptcy court. The Y is one of the organization’s only two assets presented before the court, according to legal records. Settlement acquired the 50,000-square-foot building in 2006 through the City of Philadelphia for $1.3 million and it has been vacant since.

According to court records. Freeman said the building had a masonry seal in October 2009 around all the entrances, and since May  he was not aware of any vandalism or vagrants living there. He also assured the Redevelopment Authority in court that there was private security doing a daily drive-by on the building along with two Philadelphia police officers on foot.

In a May bankruptcy court hearing, Freeman testified the estimated value of the building was  $2 million, but that it needed $5 million to $7 million in repairs.
He said the organization did not plan on restoring the YWCA as a recreation center but rather a different type of community center. Freeman told the court that the plan was to “fully renovate the building, to raise capital needed to renovate the building, part of which we have already raised, so that it will become our new home as an organization and then leasing out the balance to third-party tenants.”
Germantown YWCA front door with violation sign

He continued: “We secured a commitment for an allocation of new market tax credits to the tune of about $2 million and some change. We have also secured a state grant for $500,000 that we really haven’t been able to access yet. We have also been working on an application for historic tax credits that would raise somewhere around $1 million or so for the property and then the balance would be private debt.”

The final bankruptcy court hearing for the future of Germantown Settlement is scheduled for next week.

“What did he [Emmanuel Freeman] do with the money? He didn’t put it back into the community. It could be a senior center or something. I’d rather see something like that,” said Walker.

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