Chinatown: Officials Weigh Competing Proposals for Development at Parking Lot Site

The meeting took place in a third-floor conference room at SEPTA's headquarters at 1234 Market Street.

Cecilia Yep has served the Chinatown community for decades. As one of the founders of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., she has fought what she considers intrusive development, including a proposed stadium near the Vine Street Expressway and Chinatown’s northern border.

And on March 6, in a overflowing meeting room at 1234 Market St., Yep again showed that passion at the end of a discussion about the future of a large parking lot at 8th and Vine streets.

“We’re very anxious to know what is going to be there,” said Yep, now executive director emeritus of PCDC. “Our community doesn’t live in hotels, they live in affordable housing when they can get it.”

Her fiery speech alluded to a proposal led by Pennrose Properties that would erect a 14-story hotel on the site along with an Equal Justice Center, which will house 300 attorneys providing legal services for Chinatown residents.

Instead, Yep and the PCDC favor a plan led by Parkway Corp. that features no hotel, but rather residential and senior housing complexes, a supermarket and an urban farm that will offer fresh produce to that market and the community.

Both plans prioritize the need for affordable senior housing – Parkway’s plan features 60 units, while Pennrose’s includes 55 – and not losing too many parking spaces due to construction. The central area of the lot is difficult to build on, however, because of buried rail tracks underneath.

Members of the Parkway Corp. and Pennrose Properties teams presented their plans to more than 200 people on March 6 and answered questions after showing their proposals.

Reactions were mixed to each option, but the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority – which owns the lot at 800-830 Vine Street – has the final say. Both teams placed bids for the lot, said Greg Heller, PRA’s executive director.

Heller declined to disclose how much each bid was, telling the audience they “were very close.” He added, however, that higher bidding will not determine who gets the property.

“Bid proposals are very secondary,” he said.

Before the meeting, Heller said the Redevelopment Authority will score each proposal on its quality/design, cost feasibility, social impact and other factors.

John Chin, executive director of PCDC, told the crowd that the Parkway proposal will focus on those in poverty and the dense population of Chinatown.

“The reason I say their project should be the winner is because our perspective is, ‘What’s in the best interest of Chinatown, what’s going to maximize the benefit for the people that we serve?” Chin said after the meeting. “The people we serve are hard-working, low-income folks.”

Some audience members remained on the fence even after both presentations, including Henry Chow, 29, who lives in Center City but visits Chinatown often.

“I honestly couldn’t tell you, these two proposals are probably both good for Chinatown, and a good way to develop the land,” he said. “The Justice Center, I don’t think either side is going to say that’s not good. No one’s going to say the urban farm thing wouldn’t work out either.”

Chinatown resident Adam Xu, 53, supported the Pennrose proposal. He believes the Equal Justice Center and trendier design set it apart.

“The first design is very old, traditional Chinese kind of design,” he said of Parkway’s proposal. “The second one is very trendy and well-designed. It will make a statement for Chinatown.”

At the end of the meeting, Heller said the authority’s board would select a proposal in the next couple of months, and then work with that team to draft an agreement before the plan is evaluated by City Council.

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– Text and images by Steve Bohnel

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