Renaissance man

New NKCDC director ready to oversee revitalization of Kensington for all.

Felix Torres Colon is the new executive director at NKCDC. PHOTO: LOWELL BROWN

By Kerith Gabriel

In what will be his first full week on the job, Felix Torres Colon, the freshly minted executive director of the New Kensington Community Development Corporation has a lot of promises to keep.

Promises he didn’t make, but ones that now rest squarely on his shoulders. See, Torres Colon, who replaced longtime executive director Sandy Salzman has the task of overseeing the continued revitalization of a once blighted section of Philadelphia undergoing its renaissance. Kensington’s once vacant lots are transforming into new construction homes, mixed-use structures and as a result, a highly desired section of the city to live.

But along with all of that comes not just a changing skyline, but a changing demographic as rising costs have moved gentrification in, and many long term residents out in much of the River Wards. Specifically in Kensington, south of Lehigh through Fishtown and dead ending on the banks of the Delaware River, is probably the one place in the city where parity between haves and have nots is readily apparent.

“You have people living in homes making six figures living next to people on public assistance,” said Mike Troca, a Kensington resident who lives on E. York St.. “People are scared because they know it’s just a matter of time before they can’t afford the neighborhood.”

It’s easing that fear that Torres Colon hopes to make his mantle as the new head.

With much of his life’s work mired in community housing and development not just in Philadelphia, but Baltimore and in New Jersey before accepting the role at the NKCDC, creating affordable housing that matches the ever changing landscape has always been his goal.

“There’s a lot of progression and new housing going up in our community, but we understand that affordable housing is a real need right now,” said Torres Colon. “We have to make sure that everyone feels a part of the same community so it’s not an us vs. them dynamic. We also have to be clear [to new residents] that existing residents have a very valid point of view and that their voices will be heard just as much as everyone else.”

The crown jewel of Torres Colon’s promise is the one Salzman passed on in her departure. The continued construction of the Orinoka Civic House, a $16.2 million project just north of Lehigh Avenue continues to be the headquarters — literally and figuratively — as the former, 5-story textile mill will soon become an affordable housing structure, coffee house and the new offices of the NKCDC. Completion is expected this summer, according to Torres Colon who hopes the building will push efforts of expansion to the other side of Lehigh, which as of now is seen as the hard dividing line.

“It’s moving forward and on schedule,” said Torres Colon of the Orinoka project. They recently had a lottery and [to my knowledge] we had 10 applicants for every unit. This shows the real demand for affordable housing not only in the neighborhood, but I think in the city and in the region. I’m blessed because I get to shake all the hands but I really didn’t do any of the hard work.”

Torres Colon noted that there is also land around the area of the Orinoka Civic House owned by the NKCDC that preliminary discussions are centering around what it could become, but that no steps will be taken without input from surrounding residents first.

“We’re still talking to neighbors, business owners and other folks in the neighborhood to make a decisions on it, but obviously we understand again that affordable housing is a real need right now but it’s just talks because we have to be sure we work with the community to ensure we make the right decision. Also know that it also comes down to constraints from the current [city] administration and the current [housing] budget that impacts what we’re trying to do.

Vacant lots in Kensington are a familiar site and Torres Colon knows just how much these have become routine sites for illegal dumping and havens for the illegal drug activity that continues to plague and seemingly headquarter itself in this section of Philadelphia. There is a plan for those lots as Torres Colon noted that vacancy doesn’t have to mean unattractive.

“One of [the NKCDC’s] first major activities was doing as much as possible to keep area lots clean,” said Torres Colon. “I think the problem with lots is that no one takes ownership of them so to the extent that we help change that mindset and get community organizers willing to take ownership to organize cleanups, we have a group of folks here who are taking the lead on getting out there and charging that and we have a lot cleanup crew that just started working back up again now that’s it gotten warmer. We know that the drug activity heightens in those areas that are unkempt, so the better we can make it look, the more desirable we hope it becomes.”

This sense of community input by Torres Colon probably stems from a genuine feeling of taking care of family. While his job is creating homes in Kensington, he’s not a resident. In fact, Torres Colon recently moved to Willingboro, N.J. to assist his brother in looking after his aging mother.

“Yeah, I live a block from my mom,” chuckled Torres Colon. “In fact, she’s why I moved back. She’s actually considering moving in with my brother, so I may not have to live [in New Jersey] anymore and hopefully when the market changes a bit, we’ll look to move closer.”

For now, it’s a drive over the bridge and into a community on the rise for Torres Colon, who believes that expansion — for all — will be his legacy once his run which heads into its first full week this week comes to a close.

“At the end of the day, I’d like to leave and have people say, ‘you know what? He did a good job,’” said Torres Colon. “To me, it’s not about what I want it to look like but I’m committed to implementing the vision of the community. Their vision is important to me…so I want them to look at my work and see it as if they were in my shoes, that’s what they would’ve done.”