A Nonprofit Buys a Blighted Motel in the Name of Neighborhood Well-Being

April 9, 2018; Philadelphia Inquirer

We all know of stories like this one from Germantown, a North Philadelphia neighborhood. At the corner of Germantown and Westmoreland Street was the Liberty Motel. Neighbors “felt they were under siege by the visitors to the inn, who used its rooms as brothels and narcotics dens.” Writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Jacob Adelman notes that, “From 2004 to 2014, police responded to more than 1,800 calls at the motel or within a block of it, made 116 arrests for prostitution and 46 arrests for other crimes, and responded to 20 deaths.”

Located less than a mile away in Hunting Park, the Lenfest Center aims to provide young people with a safe place after school. The Lenfest Center is led by Chase Lenfest, son of H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, founder of the Lenfest Institute, owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer and a leading supporter of nonprofit journalism. According to Michelle Taylor, a director with North10 Philadelphia, the nonprofit’s community-development arm, the organization also provides coaching, tutoring, and classes to help young people prepare for college or get jobs that pay well.

The Center decided that the motel was at cross purposes to their youth-serving mission and “bought and shuttered” the motel. The Center, Adelman adds, intends to redevelop the site as part of a mixed-use project that will help rebuild the surrounding commercial corridor.

Of particular concern, notes Adelman “were the health and safety of the students at the pre-K through eighth-grade Mary McLeod Bethune School across the street from the former hotel.” Many of the school’s students participate in Lenfest programs after school. “It was like, ‘OK, here’s something we can do quick, fast, in a hurry, to help these people right now,’” says Taylor.

“Between early December and the end of February,” Adelman explains, a “Lenfest Center affiliate paid nearly $1.5 million for four properties…that include the motel as well as the Carman Gardens roller-skating rink, once a beloved neighborhood institution.” Ultimately, Lenfest hopes to assemble a 1.4-acre site. The center’s leaders plan to spend months meeting with community members to decide what form development there will take, Taylor said.

Andy Frishkoff, who directs the Philadelphia office of the Local Initiatives Support Corp., a national community-development nonprofit, said that while finding the money to put nuisance properties out of commission by buying them is often challenging, doing so can be more effective than waiting for police or city agencies to address such problems. “It’s a fascinating and a great model if you’re able to do it,” says Frishkoff.

Amelia Price, corridor manager with the Called to Serve Community Development Corp., says that decommissioning the Liberty Motel has been “a blessing for the community.” “A lot of people were complaining about the Liberty Motel,” Price adds. “They weren’t coming here because of the drug infestation and all the negativity.” Now, with the motel gone, the neighborhood’s odds to enjoy a more robust commercial district just got a whole lot better.—Steve Dubb