For the last year, Alston, 42, has fought to save a new neighborhood center he started - smack in the middle of the luxury Westrum development transforming one of the poorest sections of Philadelphia.
The Songhai City Cultural Center, named for an ancient African empire, is short on curb appeal. It's a plain, cinder-block building painted white with two high, turquoise garage doors. Urban cowboys, who once kept horses on the block, used it as a clubhouse before it was reinvented as a community center.
Alston sees the cultural center as vital for the neighborhood - both as a gathering point for the community and a way to prevent the area from being overwhelmed by an influx of well-to-do homeowners attracted by Westrum's development.
"We'll give the community a reason to come to this neighborhood every day," Alston said.
The Westrum company got the city's Redevelopment Authority to condemn the property a year ago. But Alston refused to let go and, as a result of events since June, will not have to.
In a surprise move, the RDA board voted July 25 to let Alston keep his property, ending a lawsuit and politically charged tug-of-war. Escaping condemnation, Songhai City opened its doors for bingo Saturday.
The battle over 3117-27 W. Master St. will resonate in many corners of the city.
Philadelphia is experiencing a robust revival in its real estate market, causing inevitable tension in neighborhoods where the change is coming fastest.
Nowhere is the transformation as pronounced as Brewerytown in North Philadelphia. The Westrum project and others will add more than 700 upscale homes and apartments in a neighborhood where one out of three households lives below the poverty line.
To keep his building, Alston had to reverse the formidable powers of eminent domain. And he had to go up against one of the biggest developers in the city: John Westrum.
Westrum, 42, is hailed in City Hall as the "poster child" of Mayor Street's Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, a far-reaching effort to rid the city of blight.
Westrum, of Fort Washington, switched his attention from building houses in the suburbs to planning the first large-scale private development in the city under NTI.
The mayor's aides credit the $200 million Westrum project for drawing investment to the struggling area north of Girard Avenue, between 30th and 32d Street.
"Mr. Alston does not see eye-to-eye with Westrum," said Kevin Hanna, secretary of the Office of Housing and Neighborhood Preservation. "I don't want to assign motive, but no one person should single-handedly inhibit progress and development."
Westrum wanted to tear down the Master Street building to make way for three or so townhouses. Now the builder will have to design around it.
With Westrum controlling land on either side of the building, Songhai City will sit in the middle of more than 100 luxury condominiums.
"It's sad," John Westrum said in an interview, "that you have to have the next phase of a beautiful community built around an existing garage."
The property sits in an "urban renewal area," a blight zone for NTI planning purposes.
The Redevelopment Authority decision, Westrum said, "sets a precedent for the failure of NTI."
"While the garage has been improved, that could go anywhere in the Brewerytown area," Westrum said, "but not necessarily in the middle of a master-plan community."
Alston, a computer expert who worked nine years for Microsoft Corp., paid $400,000 for the building and put $100,000 more into repairs. Songhai City has new plumbing and wiring; a patched roof and updated kitchen; four flat-screen televisions, and a bingo system with an electronic scoreboard.
He said the price tag for the building was "higher than what I wanted to pay."
But he said the property had "strategic value."
"It was the only building available that could prevent Westrum from creating an economically segregated community," Alston said.
Quietly buying property
Songhai City was once the clubhouse for the Philadelphia Western Club, a band of black cowboys who kept horses in stables next door and gave the neighborhood its quirky personality as an urban riding center.
The building had an odd dual life. The front bays were leased to an auto mechanic, and the big main room, with its long bar and DJ booth, was used for get-togethers. "I got married there on June 16, 2001," said Lemuel Thornton, the former owner.
The property was a bull's-eye in the 14-acre master plan for Brewerytown. Beginning in 2001, the Westrum company quietly started buying property in the area, picking up a big parking lot, the derelict Red Bell Brewery and Pyramid building, as well as scattered vacant lots.
Thornton wanted $400,000 for his building. The price was high, he said, but the Redevelopment Authority had already condemned another building he owned on the block for what he thought was too low a price.
Thornton said agents for the developer made offers as high as $125,000. He said they also took him to see three other buildings in the city for a swap.
The Westrum company turned to the Redevelopment Authority for help. It told the agency it was unsuccessful in "amicably" buying Thornton's building, according to authority board minutes from April 13, 2004.
The agency had the power to condemn the property through eminent domain - the controversial seizing of private property in the name of the public good. The authority calculated that it would have to pay the owner $90,000 for the property, with Westrum reimbursing the agency for all costs.
In a letter, Thornton was informed by the Redevelopment Authority that it was "contemplating condemnation."
'Let the market decide'
Enter Al Alston.
Alston wanted to buy the site from the start and testified against condemnation at a City Council hearing in June 2004. He headed a group called the African American Business and Residents Association (AABRA).
"We opposed using city resources to take this building," Alston said. "We said, it's a waste. Let the market decide."
The AABRA group also saw the Westrum project as creating a large community of "haves" right next to an even larger area of "have nots." Prices for the first batch of 144 Westrum condominiums start at $289,000. The median household income in Brewerytown is $21,099, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.
Alston grew up in Brewerytown, the 10th of 11 children, and knows its struggles as an isolated, depressed community. He graduated from Princeton and the University of California at Berkeley, before going to work for Microsoft in New York and Washington.
Today, Alston lives on Girard Avenue, owns several properties, and runs a variety store with a U.S. Postal Service contract branch. He spends most of his time as a community organizer. "You can't expect someone else to improve your community for you," he said.
Neighbors respect him for that. "Al gives the impression he's really trying to do all he can for his people," said Bobbie Tyler, 68, a retired state liquor store clerk who joined AABRA.
Proof it wasn't blighted
On May 16, 2005, Alston bought the Master Street building, raising some of the money from the sale of other properties he owned on Girard Avenue.
A month later, the Redevelopment Authority took formal court action to take it.
The only way Alston could reverse that was to prove the building wasn't blighted - and persuade City Councilman Darrell L. Clarke, a supporter of the redevelopment who represents Brewerytown, to spare it. Although the authority has the legal right to condemn properties, it is known that City Council members have the political influence to save them.
As AABRA members painted walls at Songhai City, Alston pushed his eminent domain case through the courts. Alston, a computer and electrical engineer by training, represented himself.
Alston deposed authority officials. He filed motions and appeals. He also invited Gov. Rendell's Philadelphia point man - former city Managing Director Joseph Certaine - to take a tour.
"He really wanted to have a community center here," Certaine said after meeting Alston. "He really didn't want to see people forced out of the community."
On June 21, Alston got the visitor he wanted: Clarke. Alston had all of his building permits lined up on a table. Clarke came alone and said little.
In an interview later, Clarke said, "I thought it was appropriate for the government to allow him to proceed with his proposal."
The Redevelopment Authority board voted to return the building.
A supermarket and more
On the top floor of a sample apartment in Brewerytown Square, John Westrum waves his hand across the scene outside a window.
"If where we're sitting hadn't been built," Westrum said, "everything you see around us doesn't exist."
Not the supermarket that Westrum plans to build on a vacant lot.
Not the new headquarters for Pennrose Properties, a for-profit affordable-housing developer, across the street.
Not the 161 new lofts in the old Acme building, including 61 at subsidized rates.
And what of Alston's claims that Brewerytown is being gentrified?
"We provide market-rate housing," Westrum said. "What happens in the surrounding community is what the market will do."
He said the company is in talks with Clarke and another community group about adding affordable housing to its overall mix. It also has partnered with a minority contractor - Gensis Group - to build as many as 21 lower-priced homes on side streets.
"What happened, happened," Westrum said. "We're designing around it."
Around the corner, in the cool main hall of Songhai City, Al Alston is showing a neighbor named Peaches how to use the new bingo equipment.
Alston said the nonprofit will use proceeds from bingo every Wednesday and Saturday for community work, including building homes that neighbors could afford. He wants to use the nonprofit center for everything from birthday parties to art shows, entertainment nights to training classes.
Judy Chapman, 70, a block captain and AABRA member, said Songhai City will help the neighborhood. "It'll be for all of us," she said.
Philadelphia (PA) Inquirer: www.philly.com