The problems started even before the tenants were handed the keys to their new apartments at West Lofts. “I was scheduled to move in early in July and not only was my unit not ready, but none of the units were ready for those scheduled to move in,” said one resident in a review posted online.
Christina Jackson, another resident, described one of the offered units as having a “terrifying, horror-movie look.”
According to multiple complaints from current and former residents, the redevelopment of the former West Philadelphia High School into the West Lofts has not gone as smoothly as expected.
In late June, West Lofts opened its doors to Curbed Philly for a sneak peek of the building. At the time, the tour revealed one of the staged, finished apartments. But the rest of the building, from the lobby to the amenity spaces, was still a construction zone.
Still, despite all of the dust around, the property management team was overwhelmed with the amount of interest from potential tenants. Amid the construction, the first batch of residents was excited to move in on July 1.
But that move-in date for those hopeful tenants came and went. Some showed up with their belongings in a moving truck only to find out that the unit they had signed their lease for was not ready. In some cases, residents had to move into temporary units.
Christina and her husband A. Conway Pedron were among the new residents anxious to move into the old West Philadelphia High School. They signed a lease in April 2017 for a two-bedroom, bi-level apartment with in-unit laundry, with a planned move-in date of August 15. Monthly rent was about $1,450.
But just days before their scheduled move-in date, they were informed that there apartment wasn’t ready. It was an untimely setback—the couple was moving from New York and about to start nursing school and a new job, respectively—but not the end of the world.
For one month, they rented an AirBnB, paying $1,000 and $200 total in cleaning fees. But by September, their apartment still wasn’t ready. “I was upstairs this morning looking at the progress on the 4th floor, and I honestly can’t imagine Apt. #437 being ready in time for you to move in on Sunday,” the property management said in an e-mail.
Still, eager to settle down, they accepted the Galman Group’s offer to move into a temporary unit for the time being. Because the unit was smaller—it was a studio and with no in-unit laundry—the couple was able to negotiate and receive free rent.
As they waited for their fourth-floor apartment to be completed, they poked around the rest of the building. Jackson said they knew when they signed the lease that they would be living among ongoing construction, but they thought the project would have made much more progress by now.
Soon, they met other residents and realized that they were not alone. A private Facebook group formed, where residents detailed their woes. Like Pedron and Jackson, others were also living in temporary units, while some apartments didn’t have water for days or weeks. Pedron says when that happened, cases of water were left by management in front of residents’ doors.
E-mails to residents from building management provided to Curbed Philly remained upbeat even in grim situations. When announcing that electricity would turned off “intermittently” throughout the day, the subject line to residents read, “We’re going off the grid!”
Some living conditions were concerning enough that residents reached out to the city’s Licenses & Inspections department. Pedron said during freezing temperatures, windows were left open in the hallways and apartments had no heat. “I think it’s a health and safety issue. They have open flames in these propane heaters running 24/7 in a construction zone that has absolutely zero safety procedures and locks or anything to keep people from wandering into an unsafe area.”
L&I investigated West Lofts last week, but said that it did not issue any citations. “Multiple L&I inspectors and a captain from the PFD Fire Code Unit conducted a thorough inspection of 4700 Walnut Street and did not find insufficient heat or violations of the construction or fire codes,” L&I spokesperson Karen Guss confirmed to Curbed Philly.
Developer Andrew Banks of New York-based Strong Place Partners confirmed the issues to Curbed Philly in an e-mail, saying that many of the setbacks were unexpected and due to the historic nature of the building, which dates back to 1912. It shuttered as a school in 2011 and remained vacant until Banks bought it in 2016.
“Rather than remove all the historic elements in the original classrooms as is common when schools get converted to apartments to make the construction more straightforward, we endeavored to keep as much of the original historic architecture as possible,” Banks said. “Unfortunately, finishing this type of unit in over 70 different configurations is much more complicated than working with 100 percent drywall construction in a handful of repetitive layouts. As a result, some apartments took a lot longer to complete than anticipated.”
“In retrospect,” Banks admitted “we probably should have waited before leasing but based on our original projections for how many leases we would complete per month, we would have probably been able to accommodate our tenants. We were overwhelmed.”
Banks said as a result, management provided all residents one month’s free rent. He also said that construction on the lobby and laundry is now complete, and the gym and the bike room should finish construction by the end of the month. Construction on the rest of the building is ongoing.
Meanwhile, Galman Group told the Philly Voice that it will no longer be managing West Lofts, and will be leaving in February. Its decision is in part due to a complaint Pedron filed with the Better Business Bureau.
For residents like Pedron and Jackson, though, the changes are too little, too late. The couple broke their lease with West Lofts and moved out at the end of December into a nearby apartment in a Victorian walk-up. On January 15, they received their security deposit back from West Lofts.
“The most frustrating thing is that it could have been a good project,” said Pedron. “It’s a beautiful building and it’s a great opportunity. “[They] just completely dropped the ball.”