On May 24, 1945, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania adopted Urban Renewal Law and that same year, created the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA) as the City’s urban renewal agency. As World War II ended and the baby boomer generation started, Federal housing programs and subsidized highway construction encouraged the development of single family homes outside urban areas throughout the nation.
This trend did not escape Philadelphia and families once with generations of ties in the City, left for the surrounding suburbs. This created a surplus of housing in the City and led to vacancy, abandonment, and slums. PRA was poised to address this physical blight and to promote the public's health, safety, and welfare by recycling this land into planned and compatible reuses.
The 1954 Federal Housing Act enabled cities to apply for federal funds for the prevention and eradication of slums. The activities and budget was split among three categories: slum clearance (31% of the budget), residential rehabilitation (25% of the budget) and industrial and commercial renewal (33% of the budget).
While PRA’s work was primarily funded with federal dollars it also performed other urban renewal activities with City and private dollars. Such projects included the relocation of the Food Distribution Center and industrial land purchases where City land was being channeled through PIDC.
From 1950-1959 PRA was engaged in 28 major acquisition projects amounting to $84.67 million and 2,648 acres of land.
1950 Friends Self Help Coop
1951 Penn Towne, Wharton School
1952 Spring Garden Homes, Univ. Penn Physics Building
1953 Harrison Plaza Homes
1955 Harrison School Yard, Wanamaker School, Cambridge Plaza Homes, Temple Univ. Dormitory
1956 Jefferson Manor, Food Distribution Center
1957 Park Towne Place, St. Malachy’s Schoolyard, Norris II Homes, University 1&2, Wister School yard
1958 North Allen, Yorktown, Temple Univ. Physics Building, Mill Creek Homes, Martha Washington schoolyard, Eastwick
1959 Temple University dormitory, Washington Square East Unit 1, East Poplar “A” 4 and 5
By 1959 PRA had a staff of 128 carrying out a $328 million budget. It also accomplished a series of firsts in this decade and a half:
- 1949 became the first renewal agency in the nation to establish a relocation office;
- 1959 started the first public art program.
- 1951 broke ground on Penn Towne the first Title I project in the country.
The Federal Housing Act of 1949 created Title I, which essentially obligated the government to subsidize the difference between the cost of preparing the site for redevelopment and its current market value. This policy would impact PRA’s role, core business and portfolio for decades to come.
The 1960s were a decade of achievement for PRA due to the availability of funding dollars. The federal budget for 1960 and 1961 combined would equal that of the entire decade preceding.
1960 Temple campus quad, Morton, St. Luke’s Hospital, Drexel Institute, East Poplar URA, Abbotts Dairies
1961 Hartranft (Navy Housing), Southwest Temple URA1962, Washington Square East Unit 2, Independence Mall 1&2, St. Joseph’s Prep School, Univ. of Penn dormitory and triangle
1963 Haddington Recreation Center
1964 Independence Mall Unit 3
1965 Mt. Olivet, West Mill Creek, Temple Univ. Unit 5, Pratt Street, Washing Square West Unit 1, Whitman
1966 Port Richmond, University City Unit 4 Section A, West Poplar North Allen Sub Area 3, Franklin, University City Unit 4, Berean, Independence Mall Unit 4
1967 Nicetown, University City Unit 3, University City Unit 5
1968 Morton, College Avenue 3, Strawberry Mansion 1, Callowhill East, Southwest Central 2, Haddington 1, Sarah Allen Home
1969 West Poplar 4, 1500 Market Street, Salvation Army, East Temple1, Washington Square West 2, University City 3 Unit B, Washington Square East 3, Haddington 1, Central Germantown
A prevalent theme echoed throughout Annual Reports of the 1960s was the slogan “Urban Renewal Serves People.” Its words were turned into action as PRA created a community relations department during this period which sought out and integrated public approval and cooperation.
PRA also took an active role in promoting racial integration at this time. In addition to enforcing non-discrimination policies in housing sales and rentals, PRA intensified its efforts to integrate minority participation in the construction labor force by assigning specific staff members to monitor and work with builders, developers, unions and church groups.
PRA continued to support housing activity throughout the city, and in 1971 began providing land to non-profit developers or through the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation (PHDC) a non-profit agent of PRA. By 1974 the Federal government had decided on the direction it wanted to take with the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG). The City received approximately $60 million in funding in 1974 with PRA’s share being $20-25 million.
In July 1976 the Office of Housing and Community Development (OHCD) was created. Programs such as the Federal Loan and Grant Rehabilitation program were transferred over to OHCD resulting in a reduction of PRA staff. (*In July of 2016, OHCD's name changed to the Division of Housing and Community Development or DHCD.)
From 1976 to 1981 PRA was actively engaged in the disposition of properties for another City entity called the Vacant Property Review Committee. Over the period of five years the Authority sold 1,665 properties and provided 20 acres of vacant land in Urban Renewal Areas for community vegetable gardens.
In 1977 the PRA celebrated the opening of the Gallery, a four level mall for which the PRA acted as developer and general contractor. This development represented the opening phase of the revitalization of the north side of Market Street. The PRA completed the exterior shell of the Gallery and the Rouse Company completed the interior to make way for 125 restaurants, retail shops and boutiques.
In the 1980s the PRA’s continued to play a key role in the development of Market Street with the construction of Gallery II (Market Street between 10th and 11th Street). It served as developer, awarding 18 prime contracts and structuring a 99 year lease with the tenant, then a joint venture composed of Rouse Philadelphia Two, Inc. and PCJ Realty, Inc. Two other major commercial projects were started in 1983, the office building known as One Reading Center at 10th and Market and the Philadelphia business Interport Complex in Eastwick totaling $130 million in construction costs.
The early 1980s were also marked by a recession that affected the entire nation. While private developers struggled to get back on their feet, the PRA responded with several housing programs that addressed different levels of need. In 1982 the PRA sold revenue bonds and notes worth $43.8 million to finance low and moderate income apartments throughout the City. In 1983 the PRA started the Home Mortgage Revenue Bond Program and continued its Home Improvement Loan Revenue Bond Program both which operated on a City-wide basis.
In 1992, Mayor Ed Rendell took office and the City was faced with $250 million budget deficit and a population of 1.6 million that was decreasing at 2% annually. As a result, the Mayor implemented an economic development plan focused on revitalizing the downtown core and promoting tourism. One such project to support this effort was the acquisition of the Headhouse and the Convention Center.
Originally constructed in 1893, the 8-story Reading Terminal HeadHouse contained the waiting rooms, ticket office, baggage rooms, dining room, as well as the general offices of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Co. After the Reading Company declared bankruptcy in 1971 it was consolidated into the Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail). The Reading Railroad ceased operations in 1976 and Conrail took over the commuter rail until 1984 when the last train departed from the station.
In 1986 the Reading Company (successor to Reading Railroad) sold the viaduct and train shed to the City as a key part of the Convention Center project. The PRA purchased HeadHouse in 1993. In 1994, the station's shed roof was restored and converted into an entrance for the Pennsylvania Convention Center which opened a few years later. The Convention Center's adjacent Marriott hotel later expanded into the HeadHouse, opening 210 rooms in 1995.
The Neighborhood Transformation Initiative ( NTI ) was created in 2001 to rebuild and restore Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. Funding for NTI came from three primary sources: tax-exempt bonds, taxable bonds and qualified redevelopment bonds (QRBs). The PRA was the issuer of all three bonds totaling $296 million. NTI was used for land assembly and condemnations, demolition, management information systems, housing and neighborhood preservation, and vacant property stabilization.
In response to the nation’s economic and housing crises, Congress passed two acts: the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 (HERA) and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). Under these acts, the Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) was established to stabilize communities that were suffering from high rates of foreclosure and abandonment due to the housing crisis. Between the two funding rounds—known as “NSP1” and “NSP2,” respectively—the City of Philadelphia, one of 309 grantees nationwide, received just over $68 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Administered by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA), NSP has played a critical role in mitigating the foreclosure crisis, stabilizing neighborhoods, providing quality housing, and stimulating the local economy. NSP resources were directed to strengthen Philadelphia neighborhoods using a mixed-income approach, serving not only low-income families, but also moderate- and middle-income ones that have suffered through the nation’s worst housing and economic crises of the last 70 years.
Today, the PRA continues its role as a key financer, project management, leader, and expert of developing and maintaining land in the City of Philadelphia.