‘Fecal samples’ against gentrification? Research activism raises red flags in West Philly

Temple said it had not approved the research solicited by professor and activist Ang Sun.

Rendering of protested  development proposal at 48th & Chester Avenue in West Philly

Rendering of protested development proposal at 48th & Chester Avenue in West Philly

JKRP Architects

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“Donate your fecal sample to help fight gentrification and irresponsible development.”

To some, the pitch read like a headline ripped from The Onion. But the campaign that circulated on social media over the weekend appears not to be satire.

West Philly United Neighbors, a registered community organization, is soliciting their neighbors to “donate” a “fingernail size” sample of their stool to help with a research project to study the impact of a proposed development on neighbors’ health. The group says it would provide the equipment for people to collect their fecal matter at home.

Why, you ask? West Philly United Neighbors is building a protest against a storied parcel at 48th and Chester Avenue, a private dog park where a developer now plans to build a 76-unit apartment complex.

What’s the connection between poop and gentrification?

A printed flyer for the campaign that appeared to circulate to nearby residents: “To fight gentrification, we are collaborating with biomedical researchers to investigate if the development would adversely affect the neighbors’ microbiota and increase the risk of developing colorectal cancer.”

Studies have linked gentrification to a number of health problems for longterm neighborhood residents. That said, the research request raised ethical red flags for some — including Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, whose district encompasses this area.

“We worry that the way the information is presented will instill fear in residents,” Gauthier said via email.

Brett Feldman, the attorney representing property owner Meir Gelley, said he’d never seen anything like this approach in zoning disputes.

“I myself am concerned about colon cancer,” Feldman told Billy Penn. “I get screened every year. I take it seriously. But as part of the zoning process, it’s really a mystery to me.”

Ang Sun, an assistant professor of chemistry at Temple University who leads West Philly United Neighbors, said Temple administrators had instructed him not to discuss the research at this time.

A university spokesperson confirmed to Billy Penn that this “research” has not received the green light from the university’s human subjects review board.

“This proposed study has not been reviewed by that board, which is a requirement,” said Temple spokesperson Raymond Betzner. “This research cannot take place without the review and approval of Temple’s Institutional Review Board (IRB). Temple University will address this matter within the policy guidelines of the university related to the responsible conduct for research.”

A resident in the area for nearly two decades, Sun has been a vocal critic of other development projects in the neighborhood, protesting another residential development proposal in 2019 at 43rd and Chestnut, according to West Philly Local. He has testified against development-related bills in City Council.

Sun owns a multi-family property in West Philly, though says he is not a landlord at this time. He did not respond to questions about two other single-family homes that city property records list to his name. He further denied any involvement with an entity called Penn Drexel Housing LLC that is associated with his phone number, suggesting it was published there by “gentrifiers who want to stain my image.”

Screen Shot 2021-03-29 at 12.29.52 PM

A flyer that circulated among West Philly residents over the weekend.

The link between gentrification and poop?

Feldman, the attorney for the developer, was in the process of trying to secure a zoning variance for the West Philly parcel when Sun’s flyer blew up online, offering to collect poop from near neighbors… for research.

Sun isn’t the only one against the new development. A group called Protect Squirrel Hill is organizing residents to fight the project at the next Zoning Board of Adjustments hearing on April 7. They say it will accelerate gentrification in the neighborhood.

Vulnerable populations, including people who’ve been victims of gentrification, can be more susceptible to poor health conditions like cancer — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Feldman defended the project from Sun’s gentrification accusations, saying the 48th and Chester proposal will include 20% affordable housing, priced at 40% area median income.

“This has the chance to be trend-setting,” Feldman said. “We’re continuing to work closely with the immediate neighbors to work out an agreement that works for as many people as possible.”

Gauthier, the councilmember, said she understood the concerns about gentrification, but she had concerns about the flyer and the solicitation.

“People of color have historically experienced maltreatment by the medical community, and so it’s critical for doctors and researchers to be very careful in what they are putting out for public consumption in Black and brown neighborhoods,” Guathier said.

Gauthier’s office also reached out to Temple for clarification on their role in the project. Further, she also questioned “whether it’s appropriate for an RCO leader to play a central role” in both the study and development activism.

West Philly United Neighbors is one of over 280 registered community organizations, according to city records. The groups operate with few requirements and little oversight, though they weigh heavily on issues like zoning.

The proposed development area

The proposed development area

JKRP Architects

The protested parcel with a storied past

Based on feedback from community groups, Gauthier said the developer’s agreement to provide 20% of units at a reduced rental rate would be a “more genuinely mixed-income” addition to the neighborhood — though she wants to make sure the developer’s promise is legally binding.

“Any commitment like this would need to be commemorated in a legally binding way,” Gauthier said. “The details of how this would get done is important, because these units would need to be preserved and marketed as genuinely affordable for a long period of time.”

Plans for the 4700 block of Chester have been in flux since at least 2013, when much of the property was purchased by current owner Nationwide Healthcare Services for a total of more than $4 million.

The Wilmington health care services company that bought up the block converted much of it from one nursing home to another. The 123-bed, long-term care facility changed hands from Park Pleasant Nursing Home to Renaissance Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center.

Right away, Renaissance wanted to make an architectural splash. Then-nursing home administrator Carmella Kane told West Philly Local in 2013 they wanted to be “a focal point of the community.”

“Aesthetically,” she said, “we want to be the best thing around.”

The long-term care facility maintained a 2007 Mural Arts project titled “Window of Stories,” while it tore down a vacant Victorian home on its grounds eight years ago.

For about six years, the property owners allowed the members’ only Chester Avenue Dog Park to stay open. Then in 2019, that closed, too.

“After 17 years of graciously providing space rent-free for our pups, our landlord, Renaissance Health Care and Rehabilitation Center, has informed us that we need to vacate the park,” reads a post on the park’s old website.

The developer is seeking approval to build beyond the current RPA-1 zoning designation, which only permits a twin duplex district. The developer has already made other concessions in addition to affordability, Feldman said

After four community meetings attended by nine West Philly RCOs, they decided to reduce the number of units and the height of the building, and increase the number of parking spots on site. The new apartment complex would also boast a front courtyard, bike and electric car parking and stormwater management infrastructure.

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