By Pat Loeb

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Philadelphia’s building boom is pushing into old, industrial neighborhoods outside the city’s core, reversing decades of decline as factories fled and their buildings emptied.

No one is happier to see this than Kenneth Milano, a founder of the New Kensington Community Development Corporation.

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“This is a dream for our neighborhood to be fixed up like this,” he says.

But Milano is also a historian, the author of six books about the area, so he wants to see development co-exist with respect for the past.

That’s why he’s applied for historic designation for a portion of Frankford Avenue, just north of Berks Street, which, in the 1832, was the site of the Mutual Burial Ground of Kensington but now lies beneath Shissler Rec Center and a 1920’s era garage which was recently purchased for demolition and redevelopment as condos.

The startled developer opposes the application, though he says he will take steps to insure any bodies are preserved if found.

The case illustrates the novel obstacles developers face as they begin taking advantage of opportunities in neighborhoods that have been untouched for decades, as well as the vulnerability of the history in those neighborhoods when they become profitable to develop.

The Mutual Burial Ground of Kensington filled up and was covered over– as many such cemeteries were in the late 19th Century. Playgrounds were a popular re-use as they required expanses that were hard to come by in densely developed cities.

Usually, Milano says, the bodies were re-interred outside the city limits but sometimes, some were left behind.

For example, Milano says, when Franklin Cemetery became Frankford playground, 8,000 bodies were removed but when construction began on a new Willard Elementary School on the site, 150 bodies were found. Similarly, the renovation of Weccacoe Playground in South Philadelphia uncovered bodies that had been buried there when it was the Bethel Burial Ground.

Milano believes the area under the Frankford Avenue garages should be excavated before being built on again.

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“There’s liable to be a lot of people buried under there and we should investigate it,” he says, arguing it’s a unique opportunity to gain insight into the period. “We’ve learned a lot of great stuff about our community through a ton of archaeological works that’s been done on the 95 project, the Sugar House casino project. Who knows what we can learn. You can only find out once you open it up.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the developer, Ori Feibush, opposes the designation. He seeks to cast doubt on the entire notion.

“It’s our belief that no graves were ever under this property,” says Feibush.

He challenges the Burial Ground boundaries Milano has included in his application and says he’s already gathered evidence that there are no bodies present.

“We’ve already completed Ground Penetrating Radar and found nothing. We’ve done boring tests and found nothing,” he says.

Nonetheless, Feibush says he intends to act with great care on the site and says he will have his own archeologist on site during any sensitive work to identify signs that bodies may be interred there.

More may be required, though, if the Historic Commission grants the designation at its July 8th meeting.

“I think, in this case, we can’t emphasize enough the importance of being careful in terms of disturbance because we’re dealing with actual human remains,” says Andrew Fearon a neighbor and preservationist who supports Milano’s application. “Given that these are really the first members of our community, we want to see that they are actually given respect and not dug up and thrown aside.”

Fearon says three local Registered Community Organizations will be holding neighborhood meetings with professional archaeologists there to answer questions.

He says the community is becoming more aware of the need to balance preservation with development.

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“We have instances where we’re actually destroying the historic fabric of the neighborhood and there’s many of us that are very concerned and are seeking better solutions,” he says.