An art-deco brick tower rises over Pennsport, a silent witness to the rapid growth of the surrounding neighborhood. As new housing goes up on what seems to be every corner, Mount Sinai Hospital sits empty. For seventeen years, the building at Fourth and Reed streets has waited for its turn to transform, and now it seems its turn has finally come.
In December 2013, developer Gagan Lakhmna unveiled plans to adapt the existing hospital building into a large complex of apartments and townhomes. Originally, 38 townhomes and 198 rental units had been planned for the space. After multiple meetings with current residents of both Pennsport and Dickinson Square West, plans were modified to slightly reduce the number of residences and include a two-story parking garage. A 2,500 square foot commercial space is also planned for the ground floor.
Neighbor Julia Bouchat believes the project will bring new life to the neighborhood.
“We’re so excited about the project,” Bouchat said. The one-year resident of the 500 block of Wilder Street likes the neighborhood for its affordability and proximity to parks and transit. “It’s such a good thing for the neighborhood. Property values will go up.”
Excitement about the project has been tempered in some residents by concerns about parking and population density of the area, as well as the checkered past of Lakhmna. His previous large-scale project, an 11-story condominium on American Street in Northern Liberties, ended in foreclosure and was never completed.
Pennsport Civic Association board member and zoning committee member Dennis Daily is optimistic that these problems will not affect the development at 400 Reed St.
“As long as it’s done right, I think the development’s effects will be 80 percent positive,” said Daily, who has lived on Reed Street for 33 years.
He was encouraged by the fact that Lakhmna and architects Barton Partners listened to feedback and modified their plans to address the concerns that neighbors raised during the public meetings.
Parking, which is already tough to find in the area, was a major concern for many neighbors.
“I’d like to be able to park my car where I can keep an eye on it,” said Wesley Kays-Henry, a resident of the 1400 block of South 4th Street. “If I have to park on Front Street and my car alarm goes off, no one would even look.”
On the other hand, the abandoned hospital has long been a target for vandalism and is considered an eyesore.
“We’d rather see something done with the hospital than have a lot of parking,” Bouchat said. “It’s never great to have an abandoned building in your neighborhood so we’re happy that something’s going to be there.”
But exactly what “something” is best for the space? Certainly, with so much residential growth in the area, apartments and townhomes are a natural choice. But what else would residents like to see?
“If you asked me what I think the building should be, I would say a hospital or a school. Maybe something for higher education,” Daily said.
“I’m cautiously optimistic about the development,” said Katherine Fritz, a costume designer has lived near the hospital for more than three years. “Secretly there’s a part of me that’s disappointed. I think everyone on this block has had thoughts of doing something incredible with the space. What if we made it into a low-cost hotel with a restaurant on the bottom, or a film studio? I think everyone who knows this block has their own version of seeing possibility where there isn’t anything right now.”
“I’m not against this building being developed into residences, but I am concerned that if property values go up it will force a lot of renters out,” Kays-Henry said.
Another concern for some residents is the perceived isolation of residents who would live in the complex. A fitness center and childcare center had been proposed for the building, but it is yet to be decided whether others in the neighborhood could use these services. If the services are made available to non-residents, it could help the renters and homeowners of 400 Reed Street forge a connection with their neighbors.
“Pennsport is a community. I know everyone on my block,” Daily said. He hopes that the complex’s commercial space will be used for something that will serve the larger community. “I love this neighborhood because it’s a melting pot. It’s diverse; the people are very real. My wife and I came into this neighborhood thinking we might not stay, but once we got here we never left.”
If the re-development of Mount Sinai Hospital is successful, hundreds of new residents will get the chance to fall in love with Pennsport, too.
– Words and Images by Nina Lispi and Eddie Durkin