After construction uncovers 19th century graves, developer pledges action — but neighbors want ‘clearer’ process

Northern Liberties community leaders learned about the burial ground at 5th and Spring Garden via social media.

After construction uncovered a former burial site, the developers say they plan to go to Orphans' Court to find the proper home for the remains

After construction uncovered a former burial site, the developers say they plan to go to Orphans' Court to find the proper home for the remains

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
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After a passerby photographed coffin-shaped indentations at a Northern Liberties construction site, and developers confirmed 19th century graves were discovered, neighbors just want answers.

“There are a lot of questions raised that could potentially be concerning,” said Claire Adler, president of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association. “I”m not going to say this is necessarily a problem in itself, that the excavations are happening. The problem is that we don’t know if it’s a problem.”

A Facebook user’s post on July 12 was the first Adler learned of the excavation, even though her organization was tasked months prior with approving the developer’s plans for the site at 5th and Spring Garden.

What stands now as a strip mall anchored by a Dollar General in a rapidly developing area at the edge of Northern Liberties is set to become a 13-story mixed-use development.

Developer RREI, run by father and son duo Neal and Victor Rodin, is planning more than 380 residential properties and over 60,000 square feet of commercial space for the corner, which is across the street from Silk City Diner and Yards Brewing. An Amazon grocery store has reportedly signed on to be a tenant.

In the 19th century, however, the site was home to the Fifth Street Methodist Episcopal Church. The area excavated for construction is part of one burial ground known to have belonged to that church. The human remains discovered are thought to be just a handful that were left behind from the 1830s.

After discovering the possible existence of the disinterred cemetery from the mid-1800s, RREI contracted an archaeology firm, the developers said in a statement. The firm, Philadelphia-based AKRF, which has a division specializing in cultural resources, then took the lead on clearing the gravesites.

“As part of the advice we received, our next steps will be to reach out to the descendant church and work with them on a proper conclusion,” the RREI statement said.

Confusing process for burial grounds, found all over Philly

Burial grounds have been either unearthed or affected by development in Philadelphia on nearly 90 occasions, said Doug Mooney, president of the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum.

The Forum maintains a map of known and discovered burial grounds around the city. The colonial-era First Baptist Church cemetery was discovered during construction in Old City in 2017, for example. About a year later, a historic Black burial ground was uncovered during construction in University City. The newly discovered 5th and Spring Garden site will be added to the database.

Mooney said unmarked graves fall under jurisdiction of Pennsylvania Orphans’ Court, according to state law. Orphans’ Court processes legal matters involving parties that cannot handle a case themselves, such as incapacitated persons, minors and the dead.

Engagement with Orphans’ Court is crucial to ensure proper handling, said Mooney.

RREI said it does plan to engage with Orphans’ Court, but is first waiting for archaeology firm AKRF to track down the descendant church of Fifth Street Methodist Episcopal, to make sure they’re part of the process.

City ordinance doesn’t mandate developers seek guidance from the court in every situation, but a spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration said it’s encouraged “if appropriate.” The spokesperson said the RREI did not violate city ordinance in its handling of the remains.

“I’m kind of surprised that we haven’t come up with a clearer process for this yet,” said Adler, the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association president.

Neighbors began posting photos of what looked liked gravesites, spurring the news to come out that's exactly what they were

Neighbors began posting photos of what looked liked gravesites, spurring the news to come out that's exactly what they were

Provided via Facebook

Neighborhood leaders hope for better communication

Ann Lastuvka is operations manager at the Northern Liberties Business Improvement District. She said she was taken aback when she first learned of the graves on Facebook.

“I was really surprised,” she said. “We’ve got a ton of development going on in this area and this is just one instance that has come up.” Lastuvka added that knowing the graves are related to an interred church cemetery makes this a special circumstance.

Lastuvka offered a mixed perspective on RREI’s approach to the discovery. On the one hand, the developer’s choice to contract with a recognized archaeology firm early and carefully extract the graves is a welcome approach. She commended what she called, “the social responsibility of that developer.”

Still, she wasn’t thrilled that she and other neighbors and community leaders learned of the graves via social media.

“We totally did not know about any of these instances,” Lastuvka said.

“I think during the community development review process, if they had said, ‘This is what we’re doing,’ … it just kind of gives you a better feeling that they’re doing their due diligence all around,” she continued, “and aren’t just constructing and not really taking an investment in the neighborhood.”

Adler’s organization is the one that led the civic design review, back in February 2020. She said the neighborhood association has since reached out to the developer’s attorney and is waiting to hear back.

Ultimately, Adler said, neighbors want transparency on the process from someone, whether that’s the city or the developer. “I think the point is it’s people wanted to know from the start. I don’t want to have to find out about this as the leader of this organization from a Facebook comment.”

Moving forward, neighbors and Northern Liberties organization leaders said they want to make sure the bodies are handled with respect.

Mooney said that is of the utmost importance. “Ultimately, these are the remains of fellow Philadelphians,” he said. “These are our ancestors. They certainly mean a great deal to members of the congregations and the communities that they belonged to.”

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