Residents in Mantua have been waiting almost a decade for the development of a supermarket in the community.
The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA) began seizing property in two blighted blocks of the neighborhood in 2012 through eminent domain to build a supermarket, but plans were halted in 2014 after local artist James Dupree fought back against the City from taking his art studio. Now, planning for another development, the Village Square on Haverford is underway to bring a supermarket to the neighborhood by the end of 2022 with its mixed-use plan for a housing, retail and commercial project.
The development will include 112 apartments, 32 tax credit subsidized apartments, 18 for-sale units, and a new headquarters for Pennsylvania’s only black-owned talk radio station WURD Radio. The development will also include a 13,000 square foot grocery store and an ambulatory medical center run by the Greater Philadelphia Health Action (GPHA) to provide an affordable health care service option in the community. Many residents are interested in the development of the supermarket as Mantua is considered a food desert with no fresh groceries within walking distance for residents to access.
The results of a 2019 Philadelphia Food Access report found that areas in higher poverty have access to less healthy foods. Roughly 23% of Philadelphians, nearly double the national average, live below the poverty line and have limited access to food and grocery stores.
The last supermarket located in Mantua burned down around 30 years ago so “this is nothing new,” said De’Wayne Drummond, the president of the Mantua Civic Association, which works to keep the residents of the Mantua community informed on decision-making within the community.
“It shouldn’t happen in Mantua, it shouldn’t happen nowhere on God’s green Earth — food insecurities — it shouldn’t,” Drummond said. “There are too many resources out there that can help people out and it’s about equity and people shouldn’t be underserved in Mantua or anywhere else.”
Residents who have access to a car, ride-share services, or public transportation often travel outside of the neighborhood to purchase healthier options from grocery stores. Some residents of the Mantua Presbyterian Apartments, an affordable housing community for people 62 and older with limited economic resources, travel to ShopRite of Parkside. To get there, residents must take two buses, a distance difficult for some older adults.
Why has it taken so long?
In 2014, when Dupree won back ownership of his art studio at 3617-21 Haverford Ave., the PRA announced it explored the potential of building around Dupree’s property, but a project under the conditions was not possible. Plans for building a supermarket in Mantua were abandoned until January 2017, when the PRA began seeking development proposals. The PRA chose a development team led by the family and Black-owned business Lomax Real Estate Partners to develop the Village Square on Haverford which includes a supermarket. Lomax’s plan for the development spared Dupree’s art studio by building around the property, but Dupree eventually sold his property which has been torn down.
“There have been conversations with different developments, but this development was the first one I can actually say that reached out to the community and showed plans,” Drummond said. “And yes, in the beginning, the community didn’t accept the plans and he had to go back to the drawing table.”
The PRA approved a $1 million sale of the Mantua land to Lomax Real Estate Partners in 2019. After a delay, plans were in place to close the finances on the development by December 2021 but this has been postponed again until June or July of 2022. This is due to a slow down by the City in putting the redevelopment agreements together to transfer the land deed, according to Charles Lomax, a partner at Lomax Real Estate.
The financing of the project turned out to be more complicated than anticipated because of the separate housing, retail, and supermarket components, as well as slowdowns in permit approval due to the coronavirus.
“This is a large project that consists of multiple facets of development, each of which will be funded by various sources,” Jamila Davis, a public information officer for the Department of Planning and Development said in a statement. “There are also several permits and approvals that have to be obtained from the city. The complexity of the project, coordinating with the various financial sources and stakeholders, the permitting approval process, and the COVID-19 pandemic all have unfortunately caused a longer development timeline than was expected and would be standard for a typical development project.”
The new intended timeline is to start breaking ground in July. The grocery store and office building will likely not be constructed until September to December of 2022 and the for-sale housing will be constructed in 2023.
“While it’s been delayed, I think ultimately the project has got better and provides a lot more benefits for the community,” Lomax said.
One way the project has improved through the delay is the possibility of creating a co-living program in a for-sale unit of the development for seniors in the community to age out in place, Lomax said. The developers are in discussion with Writers Room and its new initiative Second Story Collective as a collaborator for this project.
According to the director of communications for Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who represents the Third District where Mantua is located, the proposal for the new development predated Gauthier’s arrival in council, but she believes the community is in support of opening a supermarket.
Brandon Harris Senior, a 39-year-old born and raised in Mantua, has not seen any posts, community meetings, or memos sent out to residents with updates on the development of the supermarket.
“They don’t really give any information, let alone the supermarket, but anything being built down here and it definitely don’t be for us, the residents,” Harris said.
For many in the area, there’s a lot of talk but little meaningful action when it comes to the overall issue of food insecurity in the community.
“People can come up with answers, it’s about coming up with a solution about people’s health and well-being,” Drummond said. “It’s been a problem for years and there’s no more time to put a Band-Aid on the wound of food insecurity, it’s time for healing to take place.”
The Mantua Civic Association has worked with Lomax Real Estate Partners by doing community engagement, but that decreased due to in-person gathering restrictions and a “digital divide,” Drummond said.
Drummond feels residents generally have not been given a detailed timeline for this project, though.
“We know that it’s been a long time coming and this community has been underserved with food insecurity and something has to happen and something has to happen correctly,” Drummond added.
The development hasn’t settled on an operator for the supermarket but one possibility is Met Fresh Supermarket, according to Lomax. As a low-income community, Drummond believes the supermarket in the Village Square development should have affordable groceries for residents to have access to “quality food” and a “quality life.”
“If this supermarket is not for the people it’s like we will be cheating ourselves and you aren’t supposed to cheat yourself, you’re supposed to treat yourself,” Drummond said. “Your health is your wealth.”
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Bullshit….I’m good friends with James and lived in the rear of the studio in a artist retreat for a year. The city tried to seize the property from James for $7000… James fought back and embarrassed the city. The store wasn’t for the poor black neighborhood but for the newly developed mostly white student body they planned to house there. While I lived there the entire area from Lancaster Ave to Fairmount quickly began to turn very mostly white,Asian and Indian and mostly students as black families were forced out. James new this was what was going to happen and refused to be ripped off by Blackwell and her family who would have resold the property at full 1.5 million value.