By Carla Anderson (The Urban Warrior)
Regina Eichinger and Lois Schaub are not exactly household names.
Neither are Ethel and Windle Bird.
Maybe they should be.
They, and others like them, are victims of a certain kind of Philadelphia story - a story with no heroes, where only the rich and powerful win.
Their particular tale is an urban renewal drama that takes place in the southwest part of the city known as "New Eastwick." Even now, almost 50 years after it started, it's still being written.
And to date, the people who are supposed to be their heroes - government officials who took their land, the developer who sold them a promise of a suburban-style heaven - are totally falling down on the job.
These people spent the last 40 years feeling cheated out of the value they thought they were getting. Meanwhile, the private development company hired to build their new neighborhood is walking off with 90 percent profits on land once owned by neighbors like them.
This story started more than 45 years ago, when the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority used its power of eminent domain to take 2,300 acres for the New Eastwick urban renewal scheme. It was the city's answer to the packaged-housing suburb known as Levittown.
The land was marshy, rural, and lacked city sewers. Redeveloping it meant kicking some 10,000 people out of their homes and acquiring rights to 2,000 separately owned parcels.
Some residents banded together to fight the takeover. But the city won, and promised to develop the land in a way that would serve the public good.
Now, more than 40 years after construction started, plans for the suburban-style development - with cul-de-sacs, shopping centers and high-speed boulevards - remain unfulfilled. Major portions of the residential plan were never built.
It was the city's decision to use 16 acres of this undeveloped land for more parking at Philadelphia International Airport that triggered a lawsuit, sparking the latest chapter in this story.
Korman Co., the Trevose-based company with a lucrative deal to develop the land, says it holds all land rights till that deal expires 10 years from now, and deserves to be paid if the deal is broken.
The 16 acres, which look over the Heinz wildlife refuge, have gained more than $7 million in value since 1958, when government officials first took them. Citing its decades-old deal, Korman says it has the sole right to purchase that property at the 1961 price, which is about $1 million, and take home the $7 million profit it's gained since then.
Common Pleas Judge Albert Sheppard Jr. agrees, and recently ruled in favor of Korman. The company had fairly negotiated this deal back in 1996, Shepperd ruled, when it agreed to give up the development rights to another parcel, the 26-acre site that's home to the PNC headquarters building.
But the Redevelopment Authority says this deal stinks and plans to appeal.
The land is theirs, they say, and so is the profit. It was a mistake for previous administrations to repeatedly extend the 1961 agreement, they say, which signed away development rights at rock bottom prices. And because Korman is not the company that signed the original deal, but only came into the project in 1970, they claim it's not legally binding.
Besides, this isn't the last piece of land that's likely to become an issue. There are 55 acres of undeveloped residential land close by, which Korman also holds the rights to. If the company gets the same deal with these acres, they say, profits would be stunning.
"It's like winning the lottery," said Paul Sehnert, RDA board member and Director of Development Management for the University of Pennsylvania.
"I mean, if I was explaining it to my mother, I'd have to say, 'Gosh, that isn't really very fair, is it?'
"This is land speculation, and condemnation is not meant to siphon speculative land profit to a private sector player."
So the city got taken, obviously. And they've made a stink about it.
But what about the people who lost their land in the first place? The ones who were promised a better neighborhood?
Most of the diverse mix of farmers and families who once staked out their existence in these marshy lowlands of the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers are no longer around.
More than 40 years ago, when the urban renewal bulldozer came through, many took the handful of cash they got in exchange for their homes and became renters in West Philadelphia neighborhoods. Others have disappeared, or died.
But some remain.
Eichinger, for instance, considers herself lucky to still live in the house where she grew up, a modest brick home with a yard where her family once kept horses. The house sat on high enough ground to connect into the new city sewer, so 40 years ago it was one of a few buildings that escaped.
Other neighbors didn't fare so well.
"Take Mrs. Jennings, her house down by the creek, it was a perfectly good house and there wasn't anything wrong with it," Eichinger said. "When they took her house, I think it killed her. She took sick and died right after that.
"I'd say the only good thing to come out of the whole deal was the sewer," Eichinger continued. "We did need that. We used to have it so all the water ran out the kitchen sink and down along the alley there, then into the ditch out front. We called them mud gutters. They'd get to be wide enough you'd need a little bridge up over it. We used to say you weren't baptized till you fell into the mud gutter."
Schaub, who's 87 now, also remembers the mud gutters, and she, too, appreciates the sewer.
But she doesn't think the trade was worth it, either.
"They took away all our stores, all the houses that used to come right up to the street, and I think they tore down something like 30 churches," she said. "We used to have a neighborhood. It was friendly, and the people were nice."
She can't forget the bitter fight that some put up, trying to keep their land. Or the losses.
"I can remember, people coming home from the war, they couldn't understand how they'd gone over to fight for their country, and came back to find their homes were gone," she said.
Some neighbors, including Windle and Ethel Bird, once embraced the idea of redevelopment.
Their old Eastwick home went under the bulldozer in 1973. They took the $15,000 they got for it and bought a $35,000 replacement, a Korman-built single family home on Grosbeak Place.
With a new house and sewers, they thought they were living out the promise of urban renewal in a new "city within a city."
But 10 years later the basement started cracking. The house had been built on a dump, and the ground was sinking. Forty years later, they say they have nothing to show for their investment.
"We need the resale value, but as it is now, we can't get anything for this place," said Ethel Bird.
Bird, like the other neighbors, admits that the original Eastwick neighborhood was run down.
But she's not sure the new one was such a great deal.
"It really just wasn't up to date the way it was then, but people seemed happy. Put it this way: In the old Eastwick, I didn't have to call somebody to let them know I was coming over to visit," she said.
"But here, you do."
The legal rights to the latest bit of profit to come out of this urban renewal project may or may not have been settled, depending on what happens on appeal.
But sometimes there's what's legal, and then there's what's right.
I say any money gained in the battle should find its way back into the lives of those people who suffered when their neighborhood was destroyed. Whether that means building new buildings, or fixing old ones, I can't say.
But I can say the real victims here are certainly not Korman, or even the city, but the countless men, women and children who once owned that land, or bought into a project that didn't deliver.
And $7 million could go a long way toward righting past wrongs.
In the words of Ethel Bird:
"Since they were responsible for me moving here, I'd like to see them put some of that money into my basement."
Philadelphia Daily News: www.philly.com/mld/dailynews