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Rehabbed Orinoka Civic House in Kensington is now leasing

The factory-turned-affordable housing development opens in June

A rendering of a converted warehouse.
Construction on the Orinoka Civic House in Kensington finishes up in June.
Rendering by Jibe Design

The story of how Orinoka Mills, a large factory building just a block from Somerset station, went from boom to bust is not an uncommon one for Philadelphia. It goes like this: Textile factory thrives during the city’s “Workshop of the World” era. The industrial boom goes bust. Textile company ships out to the suburbs. The abandoned factory becomes a big source of blight.

More specifically, when the Solomon Brothers of Orinoka Mills finally ditched their Kensington headquarters in the 1980s, the factory stood abandoned at Somerset and Ruth streets for nearly 40 years, decaying day by day while earning the reputation of a notorious drug corner and a shooting gallery.

“It was an eyesore,” recalled Kevin Gray, New Kensington Community Development Corporations’s real estate development director. “It served as a cover for illicit activity and drugs. It was a really bad spot on the neighborhood and residents were really concerned.”

But this is the story of the factory’s second chapter beginning this June, when it reopens as an affordable civic house and attempts to wipe away its four decades of abandonment and neglect. Under its new name the Orinoka Civic House, the adaptive reuse project will feature 51 apartments for low- to moderate-income earners, the new headquarters for NKCDC, and 7,200 square feet of commercial and retail space.

The almost-finished $17.8 million project is the result of a long list of partners and funders, including community stakeholders and the Philadelphia Housing Authority, with NKCDC taking the lead. The non-profit organization saw the potential in the building’s redevelopment and what it could do for the neighborhood, which until a few years ago they hadn’t had the manpower to address.

NKCDC covers a huge swath of land around Kensington, stretching from Front Street to the west, Kensington Avenue to the northwest, Frankford Creek to the northeast, and the Delaware River border.

“It can be rather difficult to make an impact on an area if you’re too scattered,” explained Gray. “So we put it on ourselves to try to do something with the building after working with city to a acquire it. The idea was to create a catalyst for the neighborhood.”

With that goal in mind, NKCDC came up with the idea of turning the factory into a civic house, a space that would encourage civic engagement with the community rather than apart from the community. Says Gray, “It was the idea that Orinoka would be giving people the voice and power to think about their neighborhood and support their neighborhood. That’s the ethos behind it.”

In June 2014, NKCDC announced its plans for the building, working with local architecture firm Jibe Design for the rehab of the old factory. They opted for a glass, transparent frontage to encourage both residents and neighbors to engage with the building.

In October 2015, the project broke ground and by March 2016 the NKCDC officially became owners of the property, which was transferred from the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development. Today, the affordable housing apartments are nearing the end of construction and now leasing, scheduled to be move-in ready by June 2017. Work on the NKCDC offices and retail on the ground-level will follow soon after.

But in order for the concept of the Orinoka Civic House to work, they of course need people to live there. Gray says all potential renters are welcome, but ideally, future tenants would want to be part of and live within a civic-minded community.

The same hope goes for the future tenant of the retail and commercial space. Gray says they have been talking to a couple of potential entrepreneurs and local business owners. “We’re confident we’d like to have someone who is community-minded, in tune with the income levels, and able to provide an amenity that won’t already exist at Orinoka.”

There is no set rent on the 30 1-bedroom and 21 2-bedroom units, as the prices will be adjusted for household income, which is capped at the 60 percent of the area’s median income. As of right now, the upper income limit for a family of four is $48,180, according to Gray.

There are still four months to go until Orinoka Civic House welcomes its new community. But, says Gray, that feels like no time at all considering how long it took to get to this point.

The encouraging thing about the project is that its mission, to foster a civic-minded community, has already been put in place to get this project off the ground. “So many people from the city, local residents—everyone made really great effort on many parts,” said Gray. “We’re so thankful.”