Tuomi’s Time Machine: New Light Special

Decades after Allen’s Department Store closed its doors, the building may soon find a new purpose.

Forty years ago, our community was struggling with the effects of deindustrialization and an anemic economy, all which caused Germantown to lose jobs, with many businesses closing or moving from the neighborhood. This exodus left a glut of empty buildings behind. As a result, many proposals were made for their reuse, rehabilitation, and sometimes demolition – often by investors from outside the community. As can be imagined, their proposals were met with skepticism, and were not without controversy.

For example, several proposals were made in association with the old Allen’s Department Store, which was located at the southwest corner of the intersection of Greene Street and Chelten Avenue from 1927 until it closed in 1979. In 1981, it was one of the largest commercial properties available in Germantown for redevelopment. Various proposals were made for the use of the property. These included one made by a Virginia developer, which wanted to convert the Allen’s building into Section 8 housing, with townhouses constructed on the site of the parking lot behind the building, along Maplewood Avenue. Neighbors, including those in Penn-Knox, expressed concern that the conversion of the building to housing would leave the intersection of Greene and Chelten without a business anchoring it.

A second, similar proposal was made by Harrisburg-area developer John Jennings, who proposed a mixed use for the building, which included low-income housing, and a convenience store located on the first floor. Specifically, he proposed plans for 56 single bedroom units in the building itself, with 15 two-bedroom townhouses and 33 three-bedroom units to be built at the site of the parking lot, for a total of 107 units. While doing so, Jennings planned to invest $1 million in private funding, to help revitalize West Chelten Avenue’s business district.

Allen’s Department Store at Greene Street and West Chelten Avenue, shown in this photograph taken a short time after it opened in 1927, would remain in operation until 1979. When it closed and became available for purchase, numerous proposals were made for its reuse in the early 1980s. These ultimately failed due to poor planning, community opposition, and the arrival of the recession of 1981-1982. Photo courtesy of Germantown Historical Society/Historic Germantown

A community meeting was held in early July, and included Emmanuel Freeman, then director of Germantown Settlement, as well as Paul Curran of the Philadelphia Planning Commission, and members of Germantown Community and the Central Germantown Development councils. After his proposal was resoundingly rejected, Jennings eventually reduced the total of number of units to 64. Even with this reduction, his proposal ultimately failed. This was in large part due to the location of the proposed project, which local civic leaders and neighbors thought was inappropriate for the Chelten Avenue business corridor.

Other similar projects were proposed for our area in the early 1980s, and as was the case with the proposed reuse of the former Allen’s Department Store, many of these failed. The failure of some could be attributed to improper use or intensity of use in accordance with zoning laws, community opposition, and poor planning. Compounding the problem was that the recession of 1981-1982 was just beginning when many of these proposals were made, and to the present day, the building has remained only partially occupied. A span of 40 years.

However, the future for the building – and for the immediate area – is particularly hopeful. In close proximity to the old department store is the newly renovated Maplewood Mall, which should breathe new life and generate new interest in investment in the area, making the Allen’s building attractive to those interested in opening a business in the retail space currently available there.

Also, the new landscaping of the SEPTA bus stop and plaza on the northeast corner of Greene Street and Chelten Avenue has provided a much-needed breath of “fresh air” for the intersection. And as our economy rebounds as the COVID-19 pandemic abates, the future for the intersection now shines more brightly than it has in decades.

NOTE: Back issues of the Germantown Courier, available at the Germantown Historical Society, informed the writing of this article.

About the Time Machine
This regular series goes back in time with Tuomi Forrest, Executive Director of Historic Germantown, as he picks some of his favorite images from the Germantown Historical Society’s extensive collection. Alex Bartlett, Librarian and Archivist of the Germantown Historical Society/Historic Germantown, writes the columns, bringing photos from the distant past to life. For additional information or to learn more about the history of our area, please contact Alex at (215) 844-1683, or at library@germantownhistory.org.

East Falls and Germantown share a rich colonial history. Learn more at nwlocalpaper.com.

About Alex Bartlett 17 Articles
Librarian and archivist Alex Bartlett combines his hobbies with his career. Working for the Germantown historical society, Bartlett manages the libraries’ collection and archives, while also helping to provide visitors with requested research documents. Alex is a self-described “history nerd,” with interests in archeology and old bottles and glassware. He said that growing up in Germantown is what initially stimulated his enthusiasm toward historical documents and objects, and his job manages to integrate all of his interests into one field.

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