The scene at 1900 W. Allegheny Avenue is bumping. As upbeat music blares through the speakers, dozens of folks greet each other and mingle about in a sunny cafeteria. A constant stream of even more people stroll through the sliding doors to join their friends at the table.
This is what 9 a.m. looks like at NewCourtland’s Allegheny campus, a senior affordable housing community in North Philly.
“This place booms,” says Max Kent, assistant vice president of plans and logistics for New Courtland Senior Services.
It wasn’t always this way for the 1900 block of W. Allegheny Avenue, which sits on the edge of the SEPTA regional train line, just a few blocks away from North Broad. Like much of North Philly, this area was once a collection of hulking industrial warehouses that included a lead acid battery plant and a suit-making factory.
Yet Kent still saw potential in blighted lot for NewCourtland’s next expansion, despite its complications and remediation required to make the site safe.
“This happens to be the most underserved neighborhood in Philadelphia,” says Kent. “Part of our charitable mission is to go where others won’t. So to put something like this in the most underserved zip codes in the city, it’s really helping.”
19132 is one of the poorest zip codes in Philadelphia. Forty percent of its residents live below the poverty level; the median household income of $23,380 is about half of the city’s median income, according to U.S. Census data.
As a whole, Philadelphia is home to the largest population of seniors among all major U.S. cities. That number is expected to grow; 90 percent of the senior population between now and 2040 is expected to occur in urban counties in Pennsylvania, according to research by Drexel University’s Health Administration department.
That said, the need for senior affordable housing here is dire. Consider what happened when NewCourtland finished construction on its addition of 45 apartments this year: In early April, the last-remaining apartment had been leased, yet there’s still a 200-person waiting list.
“The saying, ‘Build it and they will come’ is not a good term anymore,” says Kent. “We go where we perceive the need is greatest, and clearly we hit it on the head here.”
In 2013, the NewCourtland broke ground on the first phase of the Allegheny project, and built a $5.6 million Life Center. This center places all of NewCourtland’s healthcare and supportive services to seniors under one roof. Designed by Cecil Baker + Partners, it features a dementia room, a green house, a fitness and rehab center, and a health clinic.
Architect Nancy Bastian says that before designing the Life Center and apartments, she met with a gerontologist, who pointed out what would and wouldn’t work for a center catered to seniors. Natural light, for example, was crucial for dementia patients, who can often become confused between night and day. In response, Bastian incorporated large, circular windows throughout the south-facing center.
“I see them as sort of whimsical,” Bastian says. “My contribution was to make sure they were low enough and big enough, so that someone in might be in a wheel chair could see out of them.”
The garden off of the greenhouse, too, was designed with these patients in mind. Landscape architect Jack Carman of Design for Generations created a large outdoor space with a meandering walkway made of soft, pervious pavers.
“New Courtland could have really built a simple, dumb building, but their directive to us was to find some beauty here,” says Bastian.
The garden has been planted with perennials, which also aims to help trigger memories among patients with dementia. “A lot of people will say, ‘I had them in my garden,’ or ‘Grandma grew them in her garden,’” says Bastian.
The same day the doors to the Life Center opened, NewCourtland broke ground on its first six-story apartment building, bringing 60 one-bedroom units for low-income seniors to the neighborhood. In early April, it opened its second addition to the property, bringing the grand total to 105 units.
Each unit has one bedroom with an on-suite ADA-accessible bathroom, sliding doors, and a fully-equipped kitchen. Bastian says every detail was accounted for to help seniors age in place.
Despite its progress, work at NewCourtland Allegheny is far from over. Two more phases are in the works for the site, including the addition of another wandering garden and a third apartment building.
But, says Kent, the changes aren’t just happening on the five-acre site. There are little things he has noticed in the neighborhood, like the recent paint job of the red, white, and blue storage facility across the street, or the addition of some retail and new light posts up and down W. Allegheny Avenue.
Says Kent, “We are just the tip of the iceberg.”