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Germantown schoolyard aims to become a citywide model for play and sustainability

Three years ago, the nearly five-acre expanse of the John B. Kelly Elementary School grounds got the attention of the neighbors. The Kelly Green initiative, led by the Hansberry Garden and Nature Center in southwest Germantown and an enthusiastic coalition of volunteers, wanted to transform the barren grass-and-concrete lot into an educational, eco-friendly community space.

Now, according to project leader Dennis Barnebey, a Hansberry board member, the initiative is on the cusp of securing dollars from the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD). And thanks to a graduate class at Philadelphia University dedicating a semester to the project, they are also closing in on final plans for an affordable upgrade.

Kelly Green was jumpstarted in spring 2012 with a service grant from the Community Design Collaborative and a 2014 practicum at Philadelphia University that also focused on the site. But as it turned out, none of those plans were "shovel-ready." As Barnebey explains, they lacked specific construction details, measurements and precise cost estimates, and the estimates they had were far beyond the project’s fundraising power.

But the students at Philadelphia University "are convinced it doesn’t have to be that expensive," says Barnebey of the concrete plans the class will produce. They’ll capitalize on "the whole idea of naturalizing a space, as opposed to architecturally designing everything perfectly." That means a range of options, like building up hills for slides, sand areas for playing, and using a playground floor of crushed bark instead of an expensive porous soft-surface finish.

“For Philadelphia University, it’s an opportunity to get their hands on something real, not just in a book, and hopefully provide a model for other places," he adds. "They’re looking at ways this could be done affordably."

For now, thanks in part to volunteers from Penn State’s Master Gardener program, the site boasts a beautiful new student-planted garden with about fifteen beds for flowers and a huge range of vegetables. Local volunteers helped maintain the site over the summer, and last year, workers in a job-training program through Restorative Justice at the Mural Arts Program provided a new shed, picnic tables, and a garden fence with bird houses and butterfly boxes.

"Having that develop in the way that it has and seeing what can happen in that desert back there has helped change people’s minds [and] get more people on board," says Barnebey of the progress so far.

As for water management, the school site hosted a PWD representative in the first week of January, who, according to Barnebey, confirmed that Kelly Green is an ideal candidate for a Stormwater Management Incentive Program Grant. If they’re successful, that could mean up to $100,000 per eligible acre for new stormwater infrastructure, a boon for ongoing landscape efforts. 

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Dennis Barnebey, Kelly Green

 

Water Department sets its sights on greening and transit in Yorktown

Why stop at stormwater? The Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) is about to bring a total overhaul to the streets of Yorktown. With help from an $800,000 grant, the neighborhood is getting stormwater planters, new bus shelters, bike lanes, wider pedestrian islands and ten new ADA ramps.

PWD has been in conversation with the Yorktown Community Development Corporation and its partners since 2012 about the initiative, known as the Yorktown Green and Complete Streets project. They see it as a holistic effort that goes beyond greening. 

Ariel Ben-Amos, transportation liaison for PWD's Green Infrastructure Partnership Program, calls it the Water Department’s "triple bottom line." Adding a mile of bike lanes to the existing Philly network, as well as two new bus shelters (one at 11th and Girard, the other at 12th and Master), and 27 stormwater-catching planters along 12th and 13th Streets, "impacts people not only from an environmental perspective, but from a social perspective, and makes sense economically as well," he explains.

In addition to the investment in good stormwater infrastructure -- which helps relieve the city's over-burdened combined sewer system in compliance with the Clean Water Act -- the project will make it easier for people to walk, bike and access transit in the neighborhood, giving the whole area a boost. The new bike lanes will run on 11th and 13th Streets from Girard to Cecil B. Moore Avenues.

"One of the great things is that as you invest in neighborhood greening, you’re also investing in the homes and the values of the neighborhoods as well," adds Ben-Amos.

Jessica Noon, who manages the Green Infrastructure Partnership Program, says PWD knew the design it had "wasn’t something that we could fund on our own"; they applied for a grant through PennDOT and the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development’s Multimodal Transportation Fund. The $831,360 PWD received was a piece of $84 million distributed to 86 projects state-wide, and PWD will contribute an additional $300,000 of its own matching funds for the project.

While at this point it’s not possible to make any guarantees about the timeline for completion, Ben-Amos says PWD could begin construction as soon as August, with an early goal of completion by the end of 2015.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Sources: Ariel Ben-Amos and Jessica Noon, Philadelphia Water Department

 

Over $8 million from the William Penn Foundation jump-starts region's trails

Creating a new trail is about more than just drawing up an idea and laying down the surface, says Chris Linn, who manages the Office of Environmental Planning at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC). But a grant from the William Penn Foundation -- $7 million over three years -- will enable DVRPC and its partners at the Circuit Coalition, a consortium of almost 70 organizations, including non-profits, foundations and various public agencies in the greater Philadelphia region, to move forward with ambitious plans for local public space.

Launched in 2012, the Circuit Coalition, which has already worked to build 300 miles of multi-use trails connecting urban and suburban centers to nearby parks and waterways, hopes to complete 450 more miles by the year 2040. (For a map of Circuit trails and their status, click here.)

According to a DVRPC statement, $1.6 million over three years from the William Penn Foundation will also go to Circuit partner Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, raising public awareness for the Circuit’s network of trails, which, when completed, will be "the most comprehensive regional trail network in the country," says Conservancy president Keith Laughlin.

Most of the DVRPC William Penn dollars will go toward engineering and design of new trails.

"Before any trail project can be constructed, you have to prepare engineering drawings, and they’re not cheap," says Linn.

They include things like grading, retaining walls and bridges -- and these are just a few of the issues trail designers in our region contend with.

Does the trail meet a road? The Circuit needs to interface with PennDOT on proper signage, crossings and lights. Does it follow a disused railroad or cross a former industrial site? You have to check with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and deal with soil contamination from things like coal, heavy metals, PCBs or other toxins.

And who owns the land?

"You can’t just walk out and build a trail on land that’s owned by a private person or a company or a railroad, so you have to secure the right-of-way," explains Linn.

These are all issues that are anticipated, met and resolved in the design and engineering phase of a trail, which Linn estimates at about 20 percent of the total cost of any given project. So the Penn Foundation grant is no small thing for the Circuit’s vision. With so many miles of Circuit trails throughout nearby counties vying for design or completion, it’s pretty competitive when it comes to funding.

"When we have money in hand, we want to fund projects that we know aren’t going to get hung up on problems, and if a project is designed, we know what we’re dealing with," Linn insists. "[A well-designed trail] basically moves to the front of the pack in terms of being eligible or being desirable for any kind of construction funding."

"Philadelphia is blessed with some great parks," he adds, but it’s "glass half empty" in some ways, because many parts of the city don’t have easy access to large parks or trails.

DVRPC and the Circuit want to change that within 25 years. 

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Chris Linn, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission

Camden High School gets $50 million boost

"Camden High School has been a project that has been talked about for years," says New Jersey Schools Development Authority (SDA) spokesperson Kristen MacLean. In December, a $50 million commitment from the state towards renovations for the site marked an exciting step forward after several tumultuous years.
  
The SDA has invested over $260 million in Camden projects to date (including five news schools). A 2008 capital plan that included Camden High got tabled when the auditor of New Jersey determined that it wasn’t in compliance with state statutes, and Governor Christie, then newly in office, suspended the plan until it could be corrected.

“We really sort of scrapped everything at the SDA [and] started looking at the projects for their needs and making a system to prioritize those needs that was very much in line with the statutes,” says MacLean of the organization’s response.
 
By 2011, that included a list of the state’s highest priority school projects, numbering about 150. SDA then developed a new capital plan to address the top ten most urgent jobs on that list, and Camden High School was one of them.

In June 2013, the School District was taken over by the state, and MacLean says the new superintendent brought "a whole new way of thinking about this project as well." 

According to a December 2014 statement from Governor Christie’s office, an Interagency Working Group -- made up of members from the SDA, the New Jersey Department of Education and Camden School District -- worked on defining the best way forward for Camden High. Camden City School District spokesperson Brendan Lowe confirms that while its graduation numbers have seen small increases in recent years, Camden City High, which has about 800 students, still has a graduation rate of about 50 percent.
 
“We need to improve the performance of the school in general and certainly the physical building, the quality of the facility, plays a role in school culture"” explains Lowe.
 
Would it need an entirely new building?
 
No, the Working Group concluded.

"There’s a great attachment to the school in the community and the building has pretty good bones," insists MacLean. So the new dollars will go toward an addition/renovation project, as well as improved programming.  
 
Lowe says more money from the state of New Jersey -- the exact amount depends on the design -- will make construction possible. The state expects to issue a call for design services early this year.
 
Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Sources: Kristen MacLean, The New Jersey Schools Development Authority; Brendan Lowe, Camden City School District. 

 

In West Philly, reclaiming vacant lots begins with a bulletin board

For West Philly's People’s Emergency Center (PEC), a special partnership with their teenage Community Connectors and the Public Workshop meant an opportunity to serve two major aspects of their mission: keeping locals informed, and activating problematic spaces in a positive way.

The vacant lot at the intersection of 42nd Street and Lancaster Avenue has long been a troubled place, but the youngsters of Community Connectors, an outreach and community organization group, worked throughout the summer to design and build a new picnic table and an attention-getting bulletin board to revamp the site.

"PEC works on getting information to people who don’t have internet," explains Meg Lemieur, a spokesperson for the PEC’s Community Development Corporation. Some people may have access to the web on a phone, but many don’t have it on a home computer.

So how do you keep residents informed about community events without Twitter and Facebook? You rely on the old school way of spreading the word.

The Community Connectors' bulletin board, constructed with the help of Public Workshop, is an all-weather bright orange box with PEC-provided plastic sleeves for anyone who wants to post information there. A November event celebrated the installation.

"It was a freezing-cold day and we had forty or fifty people come out anyway," recalls Lemieur. "There was a large cry-out for more of these [bulletin boards]."

So PEC is setting its sights on placing a second one at another vacant lot one block east; a spring 2015 installation is planned. In the meantime, the Connectors and Public Workshop have provided a fence to protect the lot, keeping it safe and clean for a roster of events like those already underway at the 42nd and Lancaster site. (These projects and events are funded by LISC Philadelphia, ArtPlace America and the Surdna Foundation.)

"There’s a lot of energy around making safe spaces in the neighborhood," says Lemieur. Projects like this help, "but it’ll be an ongoing process."

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source. Meg Lemieur, People’s Emergency Center

 

A proposed charter school at the Germantown High site tackles tourism

Julie Stapleton Carroll of the Germantown Community Charter School Coalition says the group saw it as "a good sign, and not just serendipity," that their application regarding the former Germantown High School site was the very first of 40 scheduled to be debated at an initial round of hearings with the School District’s Charter Schools Office (CSO).

Going first was also a little nerve-wracking, of course, Stapleton added. She’s a very active figure in local education: along with spearheading the Coalition, she’s vice president of Germantown United CDC and CEO of Principled Schools, Inc.

More than 50 Germantowners -- wearing customized green t-shirts to show their support -- attended the December 8 hearing at 440 North Broad Street. The presentation was limited to 15 minutes and did not include many details of the proposed charter school’s educational program.

“We didn’t go deeply into our curriculum," explains Carroll. "We just wanted to paint a picture of how we came about and who we were and what we wanted."

The Coalition got its start in spring 2013 through GUCDC, just as the school was facing closure by the District. It has 25 partner organizations including Philadelphia University, Germantown Life Enrichment Center, the Germantown Artists Roundtable, the Germantown High School Alumni Association and multiple neighbors’ associations, along with support from State Representative Stephen Kinsey.

While the group awaits its second CSO hearing, Carroll fills Flying Kite in on the school’s proposed educational model. While she insists it won’t be a vocational tech school, the Coalition's proposal will meld rigorous academics with a "project-based" occupational focus on the hospitality, tourism and construction trades.

This makes sense to local stakeholders given Germantown’s burgeoning tourist district and 400+ years of history, including numerous nationally notable sites dating from the 17th and 18th centuries.

"Tourism is a huge industry," says Carroll. "Germantown is at a tipping point really in where the local commercial corridor is going to go."

The charter school would cater to grades six through twelve. For the first three years, students would have weekly classes on "career exploration" topics geared towards understanding these industries, along with tips for job interviews and personal conduct.

Ninth through twelfth-graders would undertake more in-depth studies in their chosen focus areas, including work with local institutions.

"Our hope, our vision as the school grows, is that we can attract both a restaurant and a small boutique hotel to co-locate with us," adds Carroll.

Carroll predicts that second hearing will occur in late January. Representatives will answer questions about the application from a hearing officer and have the opportunity to make a final statement. The School Reform Commission has 75 days from the December 8 presentation to decide the school's fate. 

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Julie Stapleton Carroll, Germantown Community Charter School Coalition

 

Temple's gorgeous new campus quad gets the green light

When Temple University architect Margaret Carney first toured the campus, something struck her as unusual.

"I was surprised to see how little open space there was," she recalls. "When you think about a campus, the open space that is the core and heart of the campus is generally the most memorable spot."

That’s why she calls a large proposed green space at Temple, part of the university’s Visualize Temple plan, "a real game-changer for Temple and really for North Philadelphia."

The quad is proposed for the city block between 12th and 13th Streets, and Norris and Berks Streets (Polett Walk on the Temple campus); it will be close to the size of Rittenhouse and Washington Square Parks.

While Temple doesn’t have plans to expand beyond its footprint, the opportunity for this new green space is an exciting one for the university and the local community. Temple has the challenges of a city campus, explains Carney. Instead of an overarching master plan that would be easier to enact in a less populous zone, Temple has had "more organic growth as city blocks became available."

Though the space hasn’t been formally designed yet, Carney can already point to a multitude of possible uses, from walking, biking, picnicking and lawn sports to festivals, farmers' markets and commencement itself (the finished green could hold as many as 10,000 spectators).

The area is also an essential part of the overall campus landscape plan that will soon go public -- that plan has a special focus on stormwater management thanks to partnerships with the Philadelphia Water Department and Temple researchers.

So, in addition to being a social and recreational gathering space, the new quad will be engineered as "a workhorse in terms of stormwater management," explains Carney, with the capacity to help manage runoff from nearby sidewalks and buildings for impact beyond the lawn.

Of course, the whole thing is still years away. There are currently two science buildings on the proposed site -- outdated biology and chemistry labs from the 1960s. Before stormwater engineering and landscaping plans can be completed (which will take about a year), those science buildings need to be demolished. They will be replaced with a new interdisciplinary facility in another location, which could be built by 2019 if fundraising, design and construction proceed according to plan.  

That means the new park could be open by late 2020 or early 2021.

Five or six years might seem like a long time, but in the life of a university, it’s right around the corner. Carney hopes the park will be a major boost for the experience of students, faculty, staff and neighbors alike.

"There’s a lot of excitement about this space," she insists.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Margaret Carney, Temple University 

CDC earns $40,000 to improve the city's health through its built environment

When this year’s call for applications for the GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) IMPACT Awards of Greater Philadelphia came in, staffers at Center City’s Community Design Collaborative (CDC) saw a big opportunity.
 
GSK has been awarding these $40,000 grants annually for about twenty years -- that’s almost $6 million for 150 local nonprofits focused on some aspect of improving community health and quality of life in categories such as Diet and Exercise, Education, and Family and Social Support. In 2014, GSK added a new category: the Built Environment.
 
Collaborative leaders knew they couldn’t pass up the chance to apply, and this fall they learned that they were among eight organizations (out of a pool of about 100 applicants) to win a $40,000 grant. (GSK partnered with United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey for the 2014 round of Philly grants.)
 
"Community health and wellness is definitely one of the themes we could address," says Collaborative Executive Director Beth Miller of pursuing the program. It was the first time the Collaborative had applied, and it was "a super-duper honor" to be chosen, winning alongside organizations such as the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and the University City District.
 
The recognition is an important boost for an organization like the Collaborative, explains Miller. While completed blueprints, groundbreakings and openings always grab the most press, the vital legwork behind those milestones can be hard to notice or articulate. The group doesn’t provide finalized architectural plans and it doesn’t assist in the construction of the projects it works on, but its design-related services, including community outreach and discussion, public charrettes, conceptual designs and cost estimates -- all key to luring investors and developers -- serve as a vital bridge from neighborhood needs to actionable plans.
 
The GSK grant will benefit a range of efforts in 2015, including five new community health and wellness projects. These are yet to be determined, but, as Miller puts it, they’ll "bubble up" from the local organizations involved.  
 
The dollars will also aid a revamp of the organization's website; the new site will include a gallery of past projects and a package showcasing the work the organization has done to galvanize new futures for 18 public schoolyards.
 
Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Beth Miller, Community Design Collaborative

Massive Chinatown development project unites a divided community

The intersection of 10th and Vine Streets has been a sore spot for years in the Chinatown community -- the construction of the modern Vine Street Expressway razed countless homes and businesses, effectively splitting the neighborhood in half. But the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC) got exciting news in October: a $3.7 million Pennsylvania Economic Growth Initiative grant. It’s a major step toward making the Eastern Tower Community Center, planned for the northwest corner of that infamous intersection, a reality.

"We’ve looked around, but we haven’t found anything quite like it," says PCDC managing director Andrew Toy of the planned 23-story building, which has a projected budget of $76 million. That’s not just because of the size and cost -- which as far as PCDC knows, is the largest ever undertaken by a Philadelphia CDC -- it’s because when it’s finished, the Eastern Tower will house an unprecedented range of services and programs.

Those include 150 mixed-income residential units (which Toy estimates will mean at least 250 new neighbors on the 10th Street business corridor), a bilingual preschool and prekindergarten program from the Chinatown Learning Center, a grocery store, a recreation and community center, programming for seniors, a computer lab, and even doctors’ offices focused on preventive care for a linguistically under-served population.

Part of the story on the project’s financing is its special status through a United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)-administered program: Eastern Tower is an EB-5 qualified investment project. This is a low-interest brand of international financing that targets areas of the U.S. with high unemployment and focuses on creating jobs. And it’s not just about a financial return -- foreign investors who help create ten jobs for every $50,000 they spend can receive green cards for themselves and their families.

A grant from the William Penn Foundation helped PCDC set up a dedicated regional center to act as a conduit for these investments, and since it will continue to operate once the Eastern Tower project is complete, Toy hopes it will become a permanent gateway for development in the area.

Even local youngsters have been getting involved -- for example, the Philadelphia Suns, a neighborhood sports and volunteer organization, recently raised money for the project.

“The youth of the community are getting more and more engaged, because they see this as a real thing and they’re getting excited about having a place of their own,” says Toy. “Success has a lot of mothers.”

"It wasn’t easy and it didn’t happen overnight," he adds. But with local, state and federal support, the project is currently on track to finalize its financing by early 2015. They’re looking at "a shovel in the ground" this winter, with an official opening slated for early 2017.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Andrew Toy, Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation

 

Boston's Rental Beast brings the tools of homebuying to the Philly rental search

You want to buy a house. Besides your agent and a pre-approval on a mortgage, where do you start? It’s easy to get a comprehensive look at what’s available for sale through multiple listing services (MLS) like Trulia or TREND, filtered by categories such as location, property type and price. But what if you want to rent an apartment?

In Philly, you’re often doomed to crowdsourcing your social networks, hoping a friend of a friend has space to rent, or wading through the swamps of a website like Craigslist, whose listings, once posted, can’t be updated and can get buried in a matter of minutes.

Ishay Grinberg, the founder and CEO of Boston-based Rental Beast, calls the rental status quo in Philly "a nightmare," and he wants to change that. His site is an MLS for rentals, and it’s ready to put about one million listings at prospective renters’ fingertips through its network of hyper-local real estate experts.

"About forty percent of the population rents, and about forty percent of the population will continue to rent," explains Grinberg, acknowledging the boom in home-ownership that peaked in 2005  -- and, well, we all know what happened next.

"Almost everywhere you look if you drive around, you start seeing ‘for rent’ signs," he says of Philly, where a Rental Beast team is already set up in Center City, readying an official launch for early 2015. "There’s plenty of demand to be satisfied."

Rental Beast works for renters as well as landlords and property managers, from those handling just a few properties to those handling thousands. In less than five years, the company has seen huge success in Boston, nabbing 70 percent of the city’s market share. Now its sights are set on Philly, its suburbs and the surrounding area, including central Pennsylvania, and parts of Delaware and New Jersey.

"We’re completely free for landlords of any size to list with us," insists Grinberg.

That free-of-charge model for both landlords and prospective tenants is supported by large brokerages who partner with the company for access to its inventory, and provide a portion of the broker fee when a property is leased through the site.

But the service isn’t just about aggregating and maintaining the most up-to-date, customizable info from landlords, managers, brokers, neighborhood experts and wider market data. Users also have access to tools for everything from proper pricing to drawing up the lease to finding contractors for when there’s quick turnover on a unit.

"When small landlords have a unit turn over, they don’t have an armada of maintenance people like the large managers do," explains Grinberg. For jobs like cleaning, sanding or painting, Rental Beast maintains a free database of vetted service providers.

Philly’s "good startup community" is part of the reason he’s bringing Rental Beast to the area. With the growing trend of millennials staying in the city to work or launch their own ventures after graduation, he insists it’s the perfect time to simplify the rental market.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Ishay Grinberg

 

Philadelphia region will be home to the Northeast's first Advanced Data Center

Most of us can use a computer application -- from Facebook, to an insurance exchange to a data store for a research project -- without thinking about the servers where all that information actually lives. Right now, all of the U.S.’s advanced data centers (ADCs) operate from Florida or locations in the Southwest. Keystone NAP wants to change all that by opening the Northeast’s first ADC in Pennsylvania's own Fairless Hills.

Currently, the major metros in the Northeast -- New York, Boston, Philadelphia -- have what Keystone NAP founder and CEO Peter Ritz calls "plain old data centers," which were adequate as recently as the 1990s, but in today’s web-scale world can't cut it.

"In the last two years, we have created more data, more bits of data…than all the time before that," explains Ritz. He compares today’s old data centers to telephone landlines: adequate for doing business ten or fifteen years ago, but rapidly growing obsolete.

The servers at those centers don’t have the capacity and scalability that today’s up-and-coming tech giants (and local mid-sized businesses) need, and with a single connection to a traditional power grid, they’re vulnerable.

Remember Hurricane Sandy?

"People don’t think about it, but what happened there is that people had a single source of connection to the grid in their data center," he says of widespread computer system outages after the storm. "They had to pray and they had to beg to make sure they would get the diesel fuel delivery."

Keystone NAP's ADC will have the data service capacity to house the equivalent of eight Googles. It's special not just because of its location and its data capacity, but because of its innovative approach to power.

"It’s the steel-forging shoulders that we stand on," says Ritz of how the region’s historical infrastructure makes this possible. Instead of a single connection to the power grid, the Keystone NAP facility will operate with the help of five distinct power sources, including gas turbines and a nearby trash-to-steam plant burning refuse from a local landfill.

Ritz describes the individual servers as looking like rectangular pizza boxes, stacked as many as forty high in specialized shelving. It all generates enormous heat: fifty percent of any data center’s energy budget goes to cooling those servers with air or water-based systems.

Because not every business's server has the same energy needs, Keystone NAP is offering a uniquely secure and modular approach to power dubbed KeyBlocks. It’s common for a data center to host multiple entities’ servers, but bringing that eco-friendly customization to the powering of the diverse servers is another thing that sets the facility apart.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Peter Ritz, Keystone NAP

 

Improvements on deck for a busy corner of Chelten Avenue in Germantown

As part of a larger effort to improve Germantown's walkability, a problematic corner on Chelten Avenue is getting a low-cost, high-value makeover. The spot in question is the northwest corner of Chelten Avenue and Greene Street, right next to the southeast corner of Vernon Park.

"It has some pretty inherent design flaws that have been present ever since it was constructed," explains City Planning Commission North/Northwest Senior Planner Matt Wysong, noting a walled-off fifteen-foot-wide area, whose floor is lower than the rest of the sidewalk. "It renders it very unusable. It’s hidden and also a vacuum for trash...[It also tends to] attract people who do not-so-legal things."

Efforts to revamp the corner got underway about a year ago when Wysong first met with a group of local designers. They had ideas for low-cost, low-maintenance ways to improve the intersection. These included knocking down the wall that divides the space and putting in decking to correct the grade change. There'd be no need to dig up or replace the existing concrete.

Wysong also points to better seating and regular tree pruning as simple ways to spruce up the space. And since Vernon Park is invisible from Chelten Avenue (thanks to the line of stores along its east side), taking down the wrought-iron fence that currently divides the plaza from the Chelten and Greene plaza could be a great way to offer a new "front door" to the park.

There is $17,000 in the pot for the project’s initial design and engineering, cobbled together from some money left over from a city planning contract for yearly on-call services through the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities.

Those kinds of dollars -- "not enough to plug into a large project," says Wysong -- are just the ticket for a small-scale improvement like this. Wysong estimates that the design phase will be done by this spring, with construction beginning in early 2016. The complete overhaul would cost about $200,000, he guesses, which could come from a combination of state-level and foundation grants.  

With a little local elbow grease and a bit of funding, the ultimate goal is to make the corner "a more usable, more active place," in line with efforts to improve Germantown’s overall pedestrian infrastructure.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Matt Wysong, City Planning Commission

 

Robust winter crowds mean year-round possibilities for the Delaware waterfront

You can't separate Philadelphia from its rivers, but according to the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation (DRWC), locals’ connection to Penn’s Landing -- versus other up-and-coming areas of the city -- isn’t as strong as it could be.

"Our goal is to change the conversation on how Philadelphians see and use their waterfront," says DRWC spokesperson Jodie Milkman of the announcement that this year’s Waterfront Winterfest is getting a major upgrade and extension. Attendance last year was phenomenal despite the fearsome weather.

Summertime also saw major growth in traffic to the waterfront thanks to Spruce Street Harbor Park, and though the market for visitors is different between the summer and winter seasons, "the waterfront can be a year-round attraction and asset," insists Milkman.

After debuting for the month of December last year, Winterfest is returning as an cold-weather fixture in Philly, re-branded along with the rink as the Blue Cross RiverRink Winterfest. This season, the fun will run from November 28, 2014 through March 1, 2015, and include skating, food from Garces Events, light shows, plenty of fire pits, a "winter garden and forest" from Groundswell Design Group’s David Fierabend (featuring hundreds of trees and locally-sourced recycled shipping containers) and a Philly Beer Week collaboration (details TBA).

"It’s not as disconnected or hard to get to as people might have imagined," adds Milkman, especially since the Philly PHLASH unveiled a new winter schedule that includes the Winterfest site (stopping on Columbus Boulevard just south of Walnut Street). From November 28 through Dec 31, the PHLASH will run from Penn’s Landing to the Philadelphia Zoo every day from 10 a.m. - 6 p.m., and a special Holiday Evening Loop -- including the waterfront, Franklin Square, LOVE Park and more -- will run 6 - 10 p.m.

But the DRWC is also looking beyond winter festivities to focus on the overall impact of extended programming and "placemaking" on the waterfront, which, as Milkman puts it, proves "the need to support winter tourism in addition to summer tourism."

And it’s not just about maximizing visitors. Increasing traffic at waterfront programs today, whether it’s a summer park or skating with Santa, is key to future development there.  

"All of these programs are hopefully setting the stage for large-scale future development," says Milkman, "and pre-conditioning audiences to support businesses on the waterfront in the summer and the winter. It’s a lot easier for people to invest in the waterfront if they feel it has an audience.” 

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Jodie Milkman, The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation

 

The sushi burrito comes to University City and beyond

One of Philly’s freshest restaurants is on the cusp of a major expansion, and hopes to use our city as a launching pad to spread nationwide.

Hai Street Kitchen and Co., a unique Japanese-inspired food spot, opened its first eatery at 18th and Chestnut Streets in May. Now company spokesperson Patrick Hughes confirms that another Hai Street location will open in University City before the end of this year.

Hai Street Kitchen is under the umbrella of Genji, an international company based in Center City Philadelphia -- anyone who’s ever picked up sushi at a Whole Foods location on the east coast has already tasted Genji's products.

The restaurant, meanwhile, offers quick sushi-style flavor wrapped up in a new way. According to Hughes, as popular as sushi is among its devotees, only 15 percent of Americans eat it.

"We want to expand to that other 85 percent of America, and came up with the sushi burrito," he explains.

What’s the typical American response to sushi, Hughes asks? It’s cold, it’s small, it’s not filling, it’s only for people who know how to wield chopsticks, and "what’s this green thing in the corner?"

Hai Street diners can order their own sushi-style burritos in a nori wrap (or they can select a rice or salad bowl) with basics such as shrimp tempura, tataki salmon, chili citrus pork and more. They can choose dressings from spicy peanut sauce to black pepper teriyaki, and add a wide variety of toppings, including grilled zucchini, pickled jicama, carrots or cucumbers, wasabi guacamole, and fried garlic or shallots.

"Basically, everything is made right in front of you," says Hughes. And it's meant to appeal to everyone, from health-conscious city lunch-breakers to guys looking for something to "scarf down instead of a cheesesteak."

As with Genji’s Whole Foods-approved sushi, Hai Street focuses on organic, hormone-free, antibiotic-free, sustainably raised and harvested proteins and veggies, sourced locally in the tri-state area whenever possible (that means a menu that adjusts with the seasons).

They’re also expanding their green mission with the restaurant’s new delivery system, launched last month, serving "Vine to Pine, river to river" Monday through Friday, using bike-centric One Hour Messengers.

The company has grand aspirations -- in addition to their second restaurant later this year, Hai Street aims to open eight more in 2015, including locations in South Jersey, King of Prussia and the Main Line, with more planned for 2016.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Patrick Hughes, Hai Street Kitchen & Co.

 

Penn's South Bank campus gets a new name; Pennovation Center breaks ground

The University of Pennsylvania's South Bank campus, a 23-acre swath of development at 34th Street and Grays Ferry Avenue (purchased by Penn in 2010), is getting a new name: "Pennovation Works."

According to Penn Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli, President Amy Gutmann coined the "Pennovation" moniker, looking toward the opening of the Pennovation Center, a 52,000-square-foot three-story building, slated for renovation and re-opening in 2016.

The Pennovation Works complex will include a mix of previously existing and new buildings housing the Bio Garden of the Penn School of Arts & Sciences, UPSTART’s Novapeutics, the Philadelphia Free Library archives, KMel Robotics and much more.

On October 31, Gutmann and other Penn executives welcomed a crowd of 800 people (two-thirds of them Penn staff, faculty, and students) for a ceremonial groundbreaking and day-long seminar of tours and sessions to celebrate a wide variety of scientific, academic and commercial innovation at Penn.

The Pennovation Center concept, which includes a variety of cross-discipline co-working and research spaces, got its start within the last two years based on a need for incubator space, particularly incubators with affordable lab space.

"One of the really neat things about this project is the architects actually are entrepreneurs," says Carnaroli. "So they learned themselves that you need a space where you learn how to do your five-minute elevator pitch…they’re thinking very holistically."

That means the finished Pennovation Center, from its workshop garage spaces -- hosting prototyping gear such as 3-D printers -- to its third-floor robotics lab isn’t "just a space to do the work. It’s also about networking."

A major part of the Center’s mission will be facilitating not only research, but its application and commercialization. That means offering low-cost lab space with no restrictions on types of use and unusually broad opportunities for corporate partnerships, since the property wasn’t financed with any tax-exempt capital.

“You’re always looking for a hybrid of ideas,” says Carnaroli, explaining why it's important to house diverse thinkers -- such as life-sciences faculty alongside robotics researchers -- in freewheeling co-working spaces. He hopes this will foster "that breakthrough that no-one’s seeing until that impromptu conversation at the coffee machine." 

The Center will open in multiple phases, including a new home for Penn's GRASP engineering lab next summer, with full completion of the new complex planned for spring 2016.

Given the adjacent Schuylkill River’s place in the heart of Philly’s manufacturing history, the Pennovation Center’s location is a symbol of the shift from the industrial economy to a "much more intellectual and modern economy," muses Carnaroli. "It’s very symbolic the way this property is about to be transformed."

Author: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Craig Carnaroli, The University of Pennsylvania
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