Yvette Dickerson thought the strange men in her neighborhood looked like they’d come from a sci-fi movie.
“I’m outside,” she said. “Another neighbor is on her step. Children are riding their bikes up and down the street when we look up. And there’s someone walking on the roof — several someones, with white jumpsuits, white headgear, masks.”
Dickerson was seeing an invasive species outside her home on top of the old Peirce-Phelps building near 57th Street and Upland Way. They came from PECO, and for Wynnefield, the company amounted to something like a movie villain.
PECO plans to build an electric substation in the neighborhood. Residents worry about how the towers that would be installed might affect property values, and the possibility of electromagnetic radiation. And yet many described the worst part of the situation as the lack of transparency from the company, leading to a feeling the neighborhood is not getting a fair shake. As Philadelphia continues to change, from Center City outward, Wynnefield doesn’t want to be left behind, but doesn’t want developers or companies like PECO dictating the terms.
Of course, as a middle neighborhood, the possibility of decline outweighs the risk of gentrification for Wynnefield. That sentiment lingers, too. Speaking at a Wynnefield Residents Association meeting last week, resident Brenda Simons bemoaned an uptick in poverty and flatlining property values and incomes.
“We have to come together collaboratively,” Simons said, “because they want to divide us.”
Middle neighborhoods are relatively stable areas that don’t get the same new development as Center City and surrounding areas, or the federal and local money awarded to lower-income neighborhoods. Philadelphia has many of them, and Billy Penn is working on occasional profiles of these neighborhoods. Earlier, we highlighted the fight against a beer store in East Mt. Airy and Mayfair’s first coffee shop. Up now, with a PECO controversy looming, is Wynnefield.
The neighborhood has existed since the 17th century and is known for its diversity and green landscape. It stretches from Fairmount Park on the eastern border to the Main Line tracks on the west, and from City Avenue on the north to 53rd and Jefferson on the south. The section near City Avenue and St. Joseph’s University features sprawling lawns and 100-year-old houses. Many of them are as resplendent as the day they were built. Others show signs of wear, sometimes from five or six students packing in and violating the law limiting tenants to three unrelated people. Drive southwest, and Wynnefield gives way to a higher density and mostly black rowhome population. The 54th Street corridor, decades ago a thriving business district, has seen better days.
Typical household incomes are in the $50,000 to $60,000 range close to City Avenue, but in the rowhouse area in the southwestern part of the neighborhood they’re below the Philadelphia median income of $38,000. As Wynnefield Residents Association president Mike Reid says, “Wynnefield has different issues every three or four blocks.”
But for almost everyone in Wynnefield, not to mention neighboring Overbrook, PECO matters. The energy company bought a parcel of land in 2014 featuring a shuttered building once home to an HVAC distributor.
Residents like Dickerson noticed the sale because maintenance of the property began to slide. Grass crept up a few inches higher, litter was strewn on the ground and snow lingered on walkways during the winter. Dickerson had been speaking routinely with a PECO staffer about these problems for years when, during a phone call in February, the employee mentioned PECO planned to build a new substation on the property. It was the first she’d heard about it. And when Dickerson told the Wynnefield Residents Association the news, nobody else had heard either. A couple weeks later she saw the men on the roof of the Peirce-Phelps building removing asbestos and dressed like astronauts.
‘A big conglomerate can go into anybody’s neighborhood and just set up shop’
After about three years of inactivity, it seemed PECO was moving ahead without alerting the community. The company can legally do this. The plot of land is zoned as industrial, and PECO’s new substation fits the mold. Thus, no variance and no meeting with a neighborhood civic association is required.
The organization’s silence didn’t sit well with residents. And when Reid and other community leaders got in contact with PECO, it agreed to hold a meeting and listen. PECO just so happened to originally schedule the meeting taking place tonight for last Tuesday, the date of a long-planned Wynnefield Residents Association meeting.
“This is in the light of how [they] do things,” Reid said. “[They’re] not communicating.”
Meanwhile, Councilman Curtis Jones, whose district includes Wynnefield, held a hearing on the issue at City Hall the first day Council was back in session earlier this month. PECO applied for its use permit with L&I the day before. Samantha Williams, legislative counsel for Jones, told residents the move was indicative of PECO “being slick.”
Doug Oliver, a spokesperson for PECO, acknowledged the company got off to a wrong start in Wynnefield by beginning the demolition process of the Peirce-Phelps building without any notification, but he said it has been communicative since then. PECO has spoken with elected officials and neighborhood leaders multiple times, including once with the general public in April. It has not yet demolished the Peirce-Phelps building despite having a permit.
The substation currently serving the area is located in Overbook and nearly 75 years old. Soon, Oliver said, it will not provide enough power.
“If we don’t build the substation here for this community, where does it get its reliable electricity from?” he said. “The power lines in this community aren’t coming from a substation in somebody else’s neighborhood.”
But Pa. Rep. Morgan Cephas also expressed solidarity with the neighborhood against PECO while appearing at last week’s meeting, telling residents she’d put PECO’s “feet to the fire.”
“The fact that a big conglomerate can go into anybody’s neighborhood and just set up shop,” she said, “is not something we need in this city.”
What residents want
Wynnefield residents are aware their neighborhood is changing. They just want some say over the big parties moving in, particularly if they could have a harmful effect on an already fragile community. Dickerson wants PECO to sell to a developer who would plan something people could use, perhaps a mixture of condos and retail, particularly a bicycle shop.
For now, she and others will do everything they can to fight PECO. The company rescheduled last week’s meeting for tonight, and a regional VP is scheduled to attend. People living in Wynnefield and Overbook have been signing a petition against the substation and talked of bringing a massive crowd to protest in person.
“This is a big giant,” Cephas said, “we’re all fighting together.”