A South of South development featuring housing units and office and commercial space opened Monday.
Monday’s frigid morning temperatures could not alter the joy on the faces of those who gathered for the public opening of Osun (pronounced Oh-shoon) Village, 2308-14 Grays Ferry Ave. At 23,000 square feet, the four-story mixed-use development will include 16 one-bedroom rental apartments for senior citizens, ground floor commercial space and program offices for African-inspired cultural programs and a yearly June festival. About 100 attendees battled a typical late-autumn chill to honor one woman’s commitment and her community’s rejuvenation.
Lois Fernandez earned praise from every speaker for her 13-year role as a courageous crusader for improved senior housing options. Poised to occupy one of the units, she described the facility as “the home of love for our seniors.”
“I dedicate this to all of my ancestors,” Fernandez, who in 1975 founded the Odunde Festival, a celebration of African culture and an homage to the Yoruba tradition in Nigeria, said.
A practitioner of the West African-based Ifa religion, she chose the facility’s name to honor Osun, an undergoddess, or Orisha, who reigns over love and beauty.
“Those two aspects epitomize why we are all here today, to express our love for one another and the beauty of this community,” she said.
Various sources provided the funds for the nearly $5-million building, which comprises four lots. The National Equity Fund supplied $2.4 million, the City gave $1.5 million through its Community Development Block Grant funds, the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency offered $750,000 through President Barack Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the City’s Department of Commerce pitched in $220,000 for the commercial space and the Economic Development Initiative of the Department of Housing and Urban Development endowed $79,000. Additional aid came from TD Bank.
“I am thankful to see this project completed,” Kenneth Gamble, whose Universal Companies, 800 S. 15th St., partnered with Fernandez, said.
Since he founded Universal in ’93, Gamble, a music pioneer who began Philadelphia International Records with Leon Huff in ’71, has aimed to reverse the ills of urban decline. A notable element of that decline is poor urban housing. He expressed hopes that Osun Village would inspire dedication similar to Fernandez’s from other community members.
City Council President Anna Verna, one of Fernandez’s dearest allies, applauded Gamble and Rahim Islam, Universal’s president and CEO, for their dedication before commending the activist.
“This is a long, long, long awaited project,” Verna said. “It would never have become a reality without the persistence of Lois Fernandez. I see this building as a location for seniors to maximize their ability to live safe, independent lives.”
They will live those lives in a building with an in-unit emergency call system, keyless entry for easy access, a community room, a laundry facility and a rear patio. Bingo, knitting, line dancing and morning stretching will busy them immediately, with pottery to join the activities list soon. Most residents moved in yesterday, having completed an application process. To be eligible for a unit, applicants must be at least 62 and have an income at or below 50 percent of the local median income, which is $27,450 for a single person household.
Four units remain available and will work on a sliding rent scale like the occupied spaces. According to Tamelia Hinson of Universal Community Homes, residents will pay between $275 and $645 for the rooms, which include a refrigerator, oven, stove, dining table, bathroom and closets.
One unit will be accessible for someone with physical disabilities, and another will accommodate someone with hearing and vision impairments.
The opening ceremony capped an often frustrating decade-plus of community backlash and difficulty finding an equity investor. A 2006 Review article addressed concerns from locals that the building would be too large, as original plans called for a six-story location, and would interfere with the completion of other Universal projects.
In its 17 years of existence, Universal has constructed about 1,000 residential units; provided case management, financial, mortgage and foreclosure counseling to numerous families; and has taken on managing Edwin W. Stanton School, 1700 Christian St.; Edwin Vare Middle School, 2100 S. 24th St.; and Universal Institute Charter School, 801 S. 15th St. None of its many endeavors, however, prevented Monday’s celebration.
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress,” Mayor Michael Nutter said, quoting orator Frederick Douglass. “You have certainly struggled,” he added while nodding in the direction of the Osun team, which included Fernandez’s daughter, Bumi Fernandez, who is executive director of ODUNDE Inc.
Nutter spoke of South of South as a great neighborhood and cited the complex and the Nov. 6 reopening of the South Street Bridge as keys to making the area even more dynamic.
The first-term Democrat then launched into two of his favorite topics, jobs and seniors.
“This facility employed more than 115 construction workers to bring it to fruition and has created five permanent onsite jobs.”
“Nobody who has ever worn a uniform of the United States of America should ever find themselves homeless,” Mayor Michael A. Nutter said at June 19’s dedication of Patriot House, 1221 S. 15th St.
Though only 6, Tenenfig Dickerson, a kindergartener at Universal Institute Charter School, 801 S. 15th St., has mastered cause and effect.
“Dysfunctional families lead to dysfunctional communities,” A. Rahim Islam said Monday at Charles Y. Audenried Sr. High School, 3301 Tasker St.
Renovation is not the only thing rumbling on the 2300 block of Grays Ferry Avenue. Amid the quaint stores and eateries popping up is -- once again -- controversy over what to do with two vacant lots on the street. For years there has been talk about how to develop the parcels of land next to Odunde Inc.'s building, an African educational and cultural organization. A new proposal intends to turn the site into an affordable-housing complex, specifically for seniors ages 62 and older. But some residents who aren't happy with the project's size and scope say it is not conducive to surrounding development. The intended demolition of Odunde's building will help create a six-story structure containing 16 units. Community rooms are proposed on the sixth and first floor, which also would allot for some commercial space. Many neighbors heard about these plans at a South of South Neighborhood Association zoning meeting Oct. 18. The Redevelopment Authority has transferred ownership of the property to Osun Village, LP, a partnership between Odunde and local developer Universal Companies. If plans are approved by the city, the entity will develop the site. A continuance was granted during a zoning hearing Nov. 1, with another...