SEPTA’s Wayne Junction Makeover Brings Changes to Germantown
From a new third-floor apartment flooded with natural light, developer Ken Weinstein looked to the catalyst for the 1902 Germantown factory renovation: the buff stone SEPTA Wayne Junction station a block away. .
“Imagine being able to roll out of bed, hop on the train, and be downtown in minutes, to jobs in the area — or to the airport or the 30th Street train station,” Weinstein said. “You can go anywhere from here.”
SEPTA has spent $31.5 million to preserve the Frank Furness-designed station in hopes of spurring development and attracting more riders to southern Germantown, a 19th and early 20th century industrial center that had suffered from decades of neglect. The project was completed in 2015.
On March 1, the first tenants are expected to move into the Autograph Apartments, the latest project amid ever-increasing investment in the neighborhood, much of it led by Weinstein and his company, Philly Office Retail.
“Public transit is the reason we’re here,” he said.
Six regional SEPTA rail lines serve Wayne Junction station, as well as the Route 75 trackless streetcar and two bus lines, the 23 and 53.
Wayne Junction is one of the newest and most prominent examples of transit-oriented development in the region. Typically, this approach relies on zoning changes and design requirements such as reducing parking requirements to build dense, walkable communities with commercial amenities near transit stations.
“Transit-oriented development is really kind of ingrained in our region’s DNA simply because so much of it evolved before the advent of the age of the automobile,” said said Andrew Svekla, manager of smart growth programs for the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.
“Our extensive rail network is truly one of our greatest assets,” he said.
However, development patterns changed after World War II, with a move toward suburban single-family homes and a growing reliance on the automobile. Parts of many cities suffered from deindustrialization and blight.
On the other hand, urban neighborhoods now offer opportunities for more compact neighborhoods as consumer tastes and public policies have changed again.
In Philadelphia and the four suburban pass counties, 677 multi-family residential developments were built from 2010 to 2021 — 62% of them within half a mile of a rail transit station, according to a database of commercial real estate data cited by Svekla.
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Forty-three of the region’s 250 municipalities have ordinances allowing denser development around transit stations, with varying standards, said Karin Morris, director of community planning for the DRVPC. She also noted that it can be difficult to disentangle government efforts to encourage transit-oriented development and what happens naturally due to market forces.
“There is a growing demand for what we could say as less car-dependent lifestyles,” Svekla said.
Wayne Junction station straddles the border between Germantown and Nicetown, and both neighborhoods benefited. In 2012, the Nicetown Community Development Corp. spearheaded the creation of 87 affordable housing units in two apartment buildings, with commercial space on the first floor.
Weinstein and his Philly Office Retail partners have developed nine buildings since 2016, investing more than $17 million in the Wayne Junction Historic District of Germantown. Most are commercial spaces, as well as the new apartments of the former factory of Max Levy Autograph Co., a manufacturer of precision printing equipment.
Rent from studios to two-bedroom apartments will range from $817 to $1,629 per month, a price aimed at moderate-income workers, Weinstein said.
The former Blaisdell Pencil Factory at 137 Berkley St., redeveloped in 2020, is home to Deke’s Bar-B-Que and Attic Brewing Co., a craft beer maker with a bar and beer garden and a growing reputation on the beer scene in Philadelphia. Attic also hosts live music, brings a variety of food trucks, and hosts a Saturday farmer’s market.
by Merzbacher of Germantown, an old-fashioned bread bakery, occupies the ground floor of a renovated warehouse at 4530 Germantown Ave. since 2019. Upstairs is Philadelphia woodworkinga manufacturer of custom cabinetry and furniture that also does finish carpentry.
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Weinstein said he plans to invest more than $30 million in two upcoming projects. First, a historic renovation of the Arguto Oilless Bearing Co. plant into a cafe with offices is set to begin in March.
And construction will begin in the fall for Wayne Junction Diner Apartments, a six-story building with 143 units and commercial space on the first floor and basement. It is expected to be completed in 2024. The apartments are to be built on a large vacant lot next to Deke’s and the Attic Brewing Co.
Weinstein said he believes the housing will connect the other elements of the neighborhood, although some are concerned about construction disruption and increased traffic.
“We don’t want Wayne Junction to be hot,” Weinstein said. “We want slow and steady growth. We are not trying to change the character of the community.
Before restoration began in 2012, Wayne Junction station was a run-down mess. Windows were boarded up, the north entrance to the station was closed due to a collapsed roof, stairs and facades were collapsing, and rainwater was pooling in passenger tunnels.
Built in 1881 and renovated in 1900, the station had been a stopover for, among others, the Crusader train from Reading Co. to New York and the Royal Blue Express from Baltimore & Ohio to Washington. The B&0 ceased to offer passenger service there in 1958.
Wayne Junction’s facelift restored the passenger tunnels and stairways, while adding new signage, lighting, elevators and high-level platforms that make it accessible to people with disabilities.
Allia Lateef, an economics teacher at Penn Wood High School in Lansdowne, grew up in the area and remembers Germantown as a vibrant neighborhood. She rode on her grandfather’s shoulders at parades.
When she bought a house and moved in 2014, the Wayne Junction neighborhood was full of empty and rundown brick factories, empty storefronts and shuttered homes.
“You can start to feel like you’re being left behind,” Lateef said.
Now, she says, more people are on the streets – not yet as walkable as her ideal, Paris, but looking up.
“These factories are beginning to have life. When I turn around the corner on Berkley Street, it’s such a peaceful feeling to see lights on, faces in the windows,” Lateef said. When his daughters come to visit, they sometimes hang out at Deke’s or Attic Brewing.
Lateef said she viewed the development as positive, but worried that longtime residents could possibly be evicted.
“We have people texting and putting postcards in mailboxes offering to buy houses for cash,” she said. “It’s very blatant. Having the train station, the area seems like a good bet for investors.
In 2021, homes in the Germantown ZIP code that includes the historic Wayne Junction neighborhood sold for between $50,000 and $600,000, with a median price of $210,000 — up 33% from 2019, according to Bright MLS. In 2015, the year the station renovation was completed, the median home price was $100,000.
While the development offers opportunities for the neighborhood, it also has potential downsides, said Emaleigh Doley, executive director of Germantown United CDC, who grew up a few blocks away.
“So many activities going on at the same time can be worrying for people – it introduces change,” she said.
With about 25% of Germantown residents living in poverty, she said the new apartments would likely be out of reach for many. Streets in the area near the Roosevelt Freeway and I-76 are jammed with traffic and the city hasn’t improved sidewalks in decades, Doley said.
Bakery owner Pete Merzbacher, 32, had outgrown his old location in Olney and moved the business to Germantown in 2019, in love with the natural light and Weinstein’s offer to outfit the bakery and to factor the cost into their rent.
When the pandemic hit, the company lost many of its wholesale customers in the restaurant industry, so Merzbacher turned to supplying 75 grocery stores with fresh, local bread, as well as offering pizzas on Fridays and Saturdays.
“I didn’t think Wayne Junction would get a lot of foot traffic, and I don’t need it for my business, but I’m surprised how much that’s changed already,” Merzbacher said.
He also fell in love with tree-lined Germantown and got a house about seven minutes from the bakery.
“It’s not for everyone, you have to compromise to live in Germantown,” Merzbacher said. “There’s not a ton of nightlife. I have no choice of 15 bars within walking distance. But if you favor trees and architecture over access to bars, it’s perfect.
And he loves people. “It’s a good crew here, a good atmosphere.”