Senior-housing program is a go

The board of directors of the William Way LGBT Community Center agreed this week to move forward on a proposed project that would create affordable senior residences connected to the center.

After a several-month review process, the board voted Tuesday night to proceed with the William Way Senior Residences, a plan unveiled in the fall by the Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld Fund.

Construction could begin sometime in mid-2012, and will result in the establishment of about 70 apartments for low-income LGBT and ally seniors and a wealth of renovations to the community center.

The board said last year it needed time to review the specifics for the project and its impact on the center, and spent several months examining the proposal, hired Regional Housing Legal Services to consult, had an assessment of the property conducted and held two town-hall meetings to discuss the proposal with the community.

“The board’s final decision was based upon its assessment that the multiple benefits of the project will strongly serve our community members, our building and our programs,” said William Way executive director Chris Bartlett.

The agreement approved this week stipulated that about $6 million will go toward renovations to the community center: The front portion of the building will undergo a full rehabilitation, costing about $2.6 million, with the rest of the renovation funds devoted to the demolition and reconstruction of portions of the back of the building.

“This is a watershed moment for the center,” Bartlett said. “Since its inception 35 years ago, the center has continually grown and adapted to meet the needs of LGBT people in the Delaware Valley. As part of our near future, we are excited that we can envision a shining new community center, with new and expanded space, as a symbol of the growing strength and contributions of the LGBT community in our region.”

The adjoining senior residences, Bartlett noted, will be invaluable in connecting local seniors to the center’s programming. He noted both youth and adult programming are currently being expanded so that the center can offer a “powerful intergenerational experience.”

The project has a price tag of approximately $20 million and, so far, the city approved $2 million in funding. Former Gov. Ed Rendell also extended $7 million in state funds.

For the center, the project will result in an additional 3,000 square footage — including an expanded ballroom, a new catering kitchen and library and archive space — as well as the addition of a 700-square-foot courtyard.

During construction, the center’s operations will be relocated for an estimated 18 months. The move and cost of rent at another venue — which Bartlett said has not yet been selected but will be in Center City — will be covered by the project.

Construction company Pennrose will own the new building, while the center will continue as the owner of the William Way property and the grounds on which both are located.

“The center will have the opportunity to be involved in the operations of the low-income senior-housing units, but will not be responsible for it,” Bartlett said. “Pennrose will be responsible, but we’ll be able to participate in conversations about what it looks like.”

The government funding that has so far been pledged would require the property to offer affordable housing for 30 years, after which time Bartlett said the center and Pennrose will have the opportunity to renegotiate the agreement.

Mark Segal, president of the Hirschfeld Fund and PGN publisher, welcomed the board’s approval and the members’ thorough review of the proposal.

“We are thrilled to have William Way on board fully as partners,” Segal said. “We thank them for their due diligence and process in making sure that every T was crossed and every I was dotted.”

Center board president Jeff Sotland, who estimated the board dedicated hundreds of hours to examining the project in the past few months, said the organization is committed to working for the best interests of the center and the community, and will continue to value community input as the project moves forward.

“While we understand that not everyone will agree with our decision or will have reservations, we know that we have undertaken a serious due diligence as the stewards of the [center] and that we have presented a well-reasoned explanation for our decision,” he said. “As we now move into our strategic development planning phase for the next five years, we welcome everyone to participate and help us determine the type of community center you want us to be and how we can best serve you in the coming years.”

The Fund next month plans to submit its final application to the state for tax credits, and the state has until July to respond to the request. Segal said the plan will then go “full-speed ahead,” with Pennrose and the center coming together to work out floor plans and building designs, which is expected to take several months.

Organizers plan to close the deal either late in 2011 or in the first quarter of 2012, and to begin construction within six months.

Published by Jen Colletta in the Philadelphia Gay News on March 10, 2011.