VACANT TO VIBRANT: NKCDC’s Orinoka Civic House Plans to Do More Than Just Construction
Kevin Gray, Real Estate Development Director of the New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC), is confident that many housing applications will come in for the new Orinoka Civic House. However, Gray claims it’s a hard thing to want, because it lends itself to the truth.
“It just sheds light on the fact that people need housing,” Gray said.
The need for safe, clean and affordable housing in the neighborhood called the NKCDC to transform the abandoned Orinoka Mills factory into the Orinoka Civic House (2777 Ruth St.). As of January 23rd, low- to middle-income families can apply to live in the house’s apartments, sharing a building with community and commercial spaces. The NKCDC will not handpick which applicants will live in the house, but use a lottery process.
When the residential portion of the Orinoka Civic House is completed in June, the sleek, modern house will contain 51 one- and two-bedroom apartments. This $17.8 million development is the second of its kind brought to the Riverwards by the NKCDC. Their first development, Coral Street Arts House (2446-2468 Coral St.), was created with the intent to attract artists with both affordable and market-rate housing.
Catering to the arts community and stabilizing the neighborhood in Fishtown and East Kensington has primarily been the work of the NKCDC since it was founded in 1985. This includes helping small businesses open up along the Frankford Avenue corridor, managing vacant land and providing the community with resources like leadership classes and workshops.
The Orinoka Civic House enters unchartered territory for the NKCDC. Gentrification has caused parts of the Riverwards to experience an exponential spike in housing prices, deserting the neighborhood of affordable housing. According to Newsworks, research done on Philadelphia neighborhoods has shown that lower-income people who are priced out of their neighborhoods are moving to communities with higher rates of violent crime, higher levels of unemployment and less successful public schools.
In 2013, the NKCDC released the North of Lehigh Neighborhood Plan, outlining intentions “to strengthen the physical, social and economic fabric of the community.” This included speaking face to face about what neighbors want in their area and providing them with resources. “Our role isn’t to oversee and manage the neighborhood,” Gray said, “but to give people the power to do that.”
Community pride is behind that power. Gray claims that if you live next to a trash lot, you’re less likely to feel good about your neighborhood. When jobs left this once industrialized area, vacant factories, including Orinoka Mills, left dangerous “eyesores” across the neighborhoods, according to Gray.
To combat the blight, the NKCDC wanted to maintain the history of the former silk factory while creating affordable housing in the neighborhood. “The idea of taking pieces of the neighborhood history and reimagining them and bringing them back to life is really important to us,” Gray said. “How do we take this things that were historic to the neighborhood and reinvent them again?”
The NKCDC decided to keep the name Orinoka, as hard as it is to pronounce. As the developer of the Orinoka Civic House, Gray is leading the reinvention of the factory from start to finish. He’s been with the NKCDC for eight years, bringing his background in urban planning and development with him. “My reason for working at the [NKCDC] was that I wanted to be a part of an organization that wanted to effect positive change,” Gray said.
Aside from creating affordable housing in the neighborhood, community engagement was also a significant goal of the North of Leigh Neighborhood Plan. The NKCDC has communicated with local residents and helped form Somerset Neighbors for Better Living (SNBL). This civic association is a Registered Community Organization (RCO), which allows the members and neighbors involved to give input on zoning decisions.
Amanda Fury, a member of SNBL’s Steering Committee, admits that having a civic association, especially one that is an RCO, is a significant component for having a strong neighborhood.
“Having an RCO is essential for our neighborhood to take care of itself,” Fury said. “A neighborhood that doesn’t have an RCO doesn’t have a strong voice to advocate for their own change.”
For as long as Fury has lived in Somerset, Orinoka Mills stood vacant. As vacancy turns to residency, Fury believes it’ll be a positive change. “It’ll definitely benefit the community,” Fury said. “It’ll be used instead of vacant. It’ll be more vibrant and bring more activity into the area.”
Orinoka Civic House will include a commercial space for a to-be-announced mission-oriented business. Goodman and Gray also emphasize the Orinoka Civic House’s community room, which will be used for community meetings, events, training workshops and more. The room will be surrounded by glass walls and presented in the corner of the building, acting as a window between the community and passersby.
“We want to be a beacon for the neighborhood,” Gray said. “When you look in, there’ll be people doing something…It’ll be a focal point for civic engagement and involvement.”
The NKCDC also plans to move its offices to Orinoka later this year. Andrew Goodman, the NKCDC’s Director of Community Engagement, claims that having the CDC’s headquarters in the civic house will build better relationships within the community.
“Affirming and announcing that [the NKCDC] is coming is to say we’re neighbors. We hope to invite more people into our doors and expand the community,” Goodman said. “Coming into a new place, some don’t know where to start. [Orinoka residents] will have the NKCDC in their building to get a start and to get engaged in the community.”
Fury echoed this sentiment.
“Having the NKCDC’s offices closer will help them reach this community,” Fury said.
Applications to live in the Orinoka Civic House must be mailed to Orinoka Civic House, P.O. Box 29275, Philadelphia PA, 19125 by February 24th to be included in the lottery held on March 2nd. During the week of March 13th, those selected must be interviewed for financial eligibility, which has become a standard to follow for affordable housing developments who receive state funding. Gray claims this applying for this funding is competitive, but he feels fortunate because he believes it’ll allow the NKCDC to address a need through Orinoka.
“Our goal is make sure we’re providing as much as possible, like resources on the ground for residents, but also like the civic house that gives physical housing to folks, so they’re not being pushed out,” Gray said. •