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Designing the spaces of the future for Philly's kids

Many of us give little thought to how the built environment can benefit children's growth and play, but the latest iteration of the Community Design Collaborative’s InFill Philadelphia design initiative, launched in 2007, is focusing on the cutting edge in playgrounds.

Previous InFill programs have focused on repurposing industrial sites, improving food access, building commercial corridors and stormwater management (via a Philadelphia Water Department partnership called Soak It Up). According to the Collaborative, their latest program -- dubbed Play Space and funded through the William Penn Foundation -- will "promote dialogue between designers, child care providers, child care families, educators and community members" on the important role of play space design in early childhood learning.

"How We Play," a special exhibition of top playspace concepts from across the world will kick off the initiative. A display of international best practices in the design of temporary and permanent outdoor play spaces for children, the show is happening in partnership with the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children. Featuring over forty concepts, the exhibition is currently being installed and will run from August 5 through September 25 at the Collaborative’s Arch Street headquarters.

"There are other ways of thinking about a playspace beyond the normal playground equipment," explains Collaborative program manager for Play Space Alexa Bosse, and the U.S. has some catching up to do on this concept.

As Bosse puts it, playgrounds don’t need to just be about slides and swings: They can feature moveable parts, boxes and even scrap material for building.

"The act of building and creating is just as much a part of play as the actual structure itself," she continues. "A lot of what these exhibits show is that play is larger than we typically think, because it’s the process as well as the activity."

Kids who experience these types of interdisciplinary spaces aren’t just getting some exercise -- they’re gaining valuable social and physical development skills, including hand-eye coordination, prioritization of tasks, and even math and science.

Bosse references a new worldwide movement called "adventure playgrounds" -- a few can be found in the U.S., but most are overseas. In the United Kingdom, for example, you can earn a degree or certificate as a "playworker" or official supervisor of these spaces, to guard kids’ safety as well as help them navigate playground offerings.

The Place Space programming will have a variety of events in the coming months. Bosse is particularly excited about two August 12 sessions geared toward educators but open to members of the general public. In the afternoon, there will be a special three-hour panel, led in part by U.K.-based playworker Morgan Leichter-Saxby, on the basics of adventure playgrounds, followed by an evening screening of The Land, a documentary about a Welsh adventure playground, and then a panel discussion on balancing the risks and benefits of non-traditional playspaces that can feature activities such as hammers and nails and even lighting fires.

Stay tuned for more from Flying Kite about another Play Space project: an international playspace design competition for three local spaces -- a library, a Parks and Recreation site and a schoolyard. This will launch in September and run through March 2016.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Alexa Bosse, Community Design Collaborative

 

West Philly gets its own Nesting House, haven for sustainability-minded parents

Five years ago, Germantown couple Jen and Chris Kinka opened their first Nesting House at the corner of Carpenter Lane and Greene Street in Mt. Airy, completing what Chris Kinka calls a "holy trinity" for parents: a stop-in grocery store (Weavers Way Co-op), a caffeine peddler (the High Point Café) and a boutique-style consignment store featuring used kids’ clothes at great prices. The shop also offers top-of-the-line new products for environmentally and socially-conscious parents.

Their unique combination of quality second-hand goods and organic environmentally safe products -- including bedding, bottles and cups, toys and other family necessities -- is a way of tying the environmental and the economic together.

"Raising children can be very expensive, but it doesn’t have to be," insists Chris. The Kinkas have three kids, aged eight, six, and three, and their business has been expanding at almost the same pace as their family. They opened a second Nesting House in Collingswood, N.J., two years ago, and doubled the size of their original Mt. Airy location. Now, they’re poised to open a third shop, just off West Philly’s Clark Park.

They’ve had their eye on the area for a while.

"West Philly has been wildly supportive of us since we opened," explains Chris. On Saturdays, the busiest days in the Northwest store, "West Philly is coming up to Mt. Airy to shop at the Nesting House…It’s about time we gave them their own store."

Family-friendly Clark Park is an ideal hub of clientele. By networking with the local businesses and community organizations, the Kinkas heard about a vacant space opening up at 4501 Baltimore Avenue, right across the street from the West Philly location of Milk and Honey Market and not far from Mariposa co-op.

In a strip of five vacant storefronts, The Nesting House is leasing two to create a 1200-square-foot space. This time around, they’re able to put more thought and energy into the branding and look of the shop.

"Up until now, we have not been in a place economically or even mentally to consider more of the aesthetic nature of our spaces," says Chris. "This is the first space where we’re trying to determine what we want to be our branded look."

As of mid-July, the space is gutted and ready for construction; a beautiful exposed stone wall will add to the urban flair.

Things are moving quickly: Chris says they’re on track to open by mid-August, capturing that vital back-to-school clothing market.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Chris Kinka, The Nesting House 

Stenton Park poised to become a new community hub

A long-crumbling park and community center just northeast of Wayne Junction is getting a major revamp over the next year thanks to a $2.8 million infusion from the City of Philadelphia. That includes $15,000 for a public art installation through the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy’s Percent for Art Program.

Stenton Park, located at 4600 N. 16th Street, covers over six acres near Germantown; it currently features a playground and community center that both need major upgrades. The site is also adjacent to the historic Stenton House (built in 1725), home of Philadelphia statesman James Logan.

Percent for Art project manager Jacque Liu explains that the existing Stenton Park community center building was constructed in two parts: an original piece in the 1955 and an addition in 1982. The older portion has been closed down because of damage to its roof and flooding from broken pipes. The nearby playground equipment is outdated and noncompliant with modern standards. It’s also hard to access because of a large fence, and the fact that the grounds cover multiple elevations.

Many major improvements are planned. The older portion of the rec center will be demolished along with part of the other building, and a completely new rec center -- featuring classroom space -- will go up. A total redesign and landscape upgrade will open up the space. New equipment, including park benches, game tables, picnic tables and even a new spray-ground, will be installed.

The other major component of the project is an installation from artist Karyn Olivier, a teacher at Temple's Tyler School of Art who splits her time between New York City and Philadelphia. As per the process of Percent for Art (which allocates up to one percent of development budgets on land acquired and assembled by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority to public art), a nationwide request for qualifications went out. An expert panel -- that included local community members -- narrowed the field down to about five artists who made full proposals for the space.

"Often public art is just plopped in there," says Liu, but "in this particular case, it’s very integrated into the site."

Olivier is creating a site-specific installation called "School is Out." It will feature a giant blackboard on one exterior wall of the new rec center, equipped with chalk for everyone -- it can serve as an extension of the inside classroom. There will also be engraved pavers featuring quotations from historic and contemporary Philadelphia thinkers, including Logan.

Olivier says the piece will provide "a place for individual reflection," encouraging debate and conversation in the communal space.

Liu estimates that all work at Stenton Park will be done by summer 2016; a single dedication will be held for all the park’s new features.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Jacque Liu, Percent for Art Program

Uptown Beer Garden shakes up summer on JFK

Right before scheduled publication, Uptown Beer Garden was shut down by L&I. It has since reopened. The space has been restructured and table service added. Read on for more on this exciting contribution to the Center City business district.

This month, Chestnut Street’s BRU Craft & Wurst expanded to activate a formerly barren piece of Center City. Starting July 1, the 9,000-square-foot Uptown Beer Garden, helmed by BRU owner Teddy Sourias, took over the courtyard of the PNY Mellon Building at 1735 John F. Kennedy Boulevard.
 
"I was adamant about that area," explains Souria. "I didn’t want to go Old City or South Philly, because those things had been done before.”

Sourias nabbed the unexpected spot in the business district during the first week of June, which meant a wild scramble to get the space ready. He had a broker helping him search for a year before he found out the Mellon Building plaza could work.
 
"It happened so fast," he says of what came next: the paperwork, the purchase of a food cart, and the design and development of the space. "We literally didn’t sleep. My whole staff pulled through."
 
The space includes trees and 2,000-pound granite benches, some of which Uptown removed and more than a dozen of which they kept. There are also large communal picnic tables (the staff stained them themselves), tree slabs made into high-top tables and a 35-foot bar. A lot of Pennsylvania reclaimed wood went into the construction, lending a rustic note to the formerly quiet stretch of concrete.
 
So far Sourias’s hunch about the location has paid off: 3,500 people showed up on beer garden's first day.

And they're not showing up just for the drinks. The menu includes bratwurst brought from the kitchen at BRU, Bavarian-style warm pretzels, guacamole and chips, a BBQ summer tofu roll, and pulled duck, beef short rib, and seared tuna sliders. There’s also ice cream and cocoa cookies for dessert.
 
The bar menu includes frozen margaritas, various sangrias, and a wide range of cans and beer on tap, including special seasonal selections.

And you can feel good about sipping those suds: The Philadelphia Animal Welfare Association (PAWS) is close to Sourias’s heart, and Uptown is partnering with the rescue organization to donate proceeds throughout the season. During "Yappy Hour" -- details TBA -- a portion of the till will go to PAWS; and a special sangria on the menu will put a dollar toward the charity every time someone orders it.
 
Sourias is so optimistic about the location that he’s hoping to stay open for Uptown’s own Oktoberfest, and, if they can get the clearance, to stay open through the Pope's visit in late September.
 
"We’re in the best worst location for that," Sourias quips of their proximity to the Parkway. "The best because it’s right across the street; the worst because it’s right across the street."
 
Uptown Beer Garden’s opening hours are Monday, Tuesday and Thursday 5 - 10 p.m., Wednesday from 4 p.m. to midnight, and Friday and Saturday from 2 p.m. - midnight (closed Sundays).
 
Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Teddy Sourias, Uptown Beer Garden

Rethinking the Rowhome: An architect lets in the light in Queen Village

In this city of rowhomes, thoughtful design can have a huge impact. One local designer transformed her Fabric Row space into a showcase for bringing light and flexibility to Philadelphia's signature structure.

Juliet Whelan, owner of award-winning architecture firm Jibe Design, lives with her husband live on the second and third floors above an office they rent out. The recently renovated home is stunning. Natural light floods the space and the minimalist furniture was designed by the homeowner herself. There are tons of unique features including a steel parapet hook chandelier over the custom dining table, a raw steel grating stair and a steel "curtain" guardrail from the 3rd floor to the roof.

This is actually the second renovation on the home, which sits on the 800 block of South 4th Street in Queen Village. The project cost $150,000 and included an addition to the rear of the building, a roof deck and a garden.

In fact, there are no traditional closets -- just a custom pantry in the kitchen for storing food and cleaning supplies, and a string curtain surrounding open shelves for clothes and shoes in the master suite. 

"We're pretty tidy people, so I opted for closets as furniture," explains Whelan. "I like to stand in my bedroom, where there's a lot of natural light, and pick out my clothes for the day."

Helping to capitalize on that natural light pouring in through large windows on the upper level and coming down from the light box on the roof are two sliding doors on the bedrooms. They can be left open to let the light play throughout the space or closed to provide privacy when the couple has guests.

The home's new furniture was designed by Whelan and built with the help of several friends and craftspeople. There's the bed that looks like a double-wide chaise lounge made from wood, which sits atop a black and white rug from Millésimé. She also designed the dining table; above it hangs the chandelier made from parapet hooks, which have a connection to the house's history.

"For the last seven years I've had these metal hooks I found in the basement," she says. "We thought maybe it was a Jewish deli and these were meat hooks. We hung them above my table and then found out they're parapet hooks, used to do work on the exterior of a building. Someone who lived here before us must have been a mason or something."

Writer: Rosella LaFevre
Source: Juliet Whelan, Jibe Design

Pennsylvania Horticultural Society funds public spaces with $25,000 Placemaker Grants

When the El rumbles overhead in Frankford, people stop mid-conversation and wait for the noise to pass. Residents call this the "Frankford Pause." Now, that iconic local phrase will become the name of a new vacant property-turned-public park in the neighborhood, designed with help from the Community Design Collaborative.

Spearheaded by the Frankford Community Development Corporation and the City Planning Commission, the project will be funded through multiple sources, including the Neighborhood Placemaker Grant, awarded for the first time this year by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS). The Frankford CDC is one of three winners of these grants -- they provide $25,000 to projects aimed at improving the look and environmental sustainability of communities through public spaces. The other two winners are Nueva Esperanza, Inc. and Somerset Neighbors for Better Living

"We selected projects that are quite different from each other," explains PHS's Tammy Leigh DeMent. "But [each] scored well across multiple levels including impact to the neighborhood, commitment from the community, partner engagement and a maintenance plan."

Nueva Esperanza, Inc., which serves the needs of Hispanic communities in North Philadelphia, leads the charge in revitalizing the Veterans’ Memorial Plaza at Wyoming and Rising Sun Avenues. Plans for the project include the expansion of the central garden, replacement of crumbling hardscape and the addition of benches and planters. The goal is to attract residents to this important gateway in the Feltonville community.

Somerset Neighbors for Better Living, a committee of the New Kensington Community Development Corporation, heads the Community Planter Initiative, a program that will provide free window boxes, street planters and plants for residents who attend neighborhood meetings. This program is about fostering community connections through greening, while beautifying residential and business corridors.

Each of these projects are scheduled to begin in June and be completed within one year.

PHS hopes that this grant program inspired community based organizations to think big for their neighborhoods. 

"Many of the groups that did not win the grant contacted us afterwards to let us know that the opportunity to apply gave them a chance to organize around an idea that had been in the back of their minds for a while," says DeMent. "Now that they’ve done so, they are going to continue to look for funding."

The Neighborhood Placemaker Grants are part of PHS's larger Civic Landscapes program, a four-decades-old effort that has transformed public areas and neighborhood open spaces into premier sites and destinations. 

"Communities matter," adds DeMent. "Not every beautification project can be City-driven, not every greening effort needs to be large-scale and expensive. Small but important green spaces can lift the spirit of a neighborhood, gather people together and give communities a place -- and a reason -- to meet."

Writer: Rosella LaFevre
Source: ?Tammy Leigh DeMent, PHS

Commercial developer founds Jumpstart Germantown to empower new developers

In 25 years of business, commercial real estate developer Ken Weinstein of Philly Office Retail has mentored plenty of wannabe real estate developers. Recently, two such novices approached him after a community meeting and asked him to mentor them. He offered to sit down with them together and spend three hours teaching them the basics of development.

From this three hour session came the inspiration for Jumpstart Germantown, an initiative Weinstein is spearheading to drive investment in the Northwest Philadelphia neighborhood where he's been investing and working his entire career. This new organization looks to "jumpstart" the neighborhood by mentoring inexperienced developers, connecting them with each other and more experienced developers, and providing loans to spur development. 

"There is great enthusiasm for doing more in Germantown," explains Weinstein. "We totally did not expect this much energy and enthusiasm this quickly. It's clear that what we're offering has struck a nerve."

One of those original novices who approached Weinstein is Nancy Deephouse. He has tapped her to lead the Developers' Network, bringing together inexperienced and experienced developers alike. On May 28, more than 100 people showed up to the first meeting of Jumpstart Germantown's Developers Network at the newly renovated Greatness is in You! Drama School and Performing Arts Center (4811 Germantown Avenue).

Weinstein has also received 79 applications from developers who want to be part of the nine-hour program he's created about development. Only eight at a time will go through the course; the next cycle starts in July. He says he'll make sure each of those 79 get through.  

Jumpstart Germantown will also provide loans of up to 95 percent of the cost of a residential development project. These short-term loans are funded by a $2 million line of credit, which means they could service up to 30 loans at a time. What makes this loan program different from others is that the organization does not have the same loan requirements as a bank. But the hope is that recipients will be able to sell the property or finance it through a bank at the end of 9-to-12 months so that Jumpstart Germantown can exit the loan.

So far they've received five applications and signed deals to provide two loans of approximately $75,000 each. These loans are going to developers who have two and four development projects behind them, respectively.

Weinstein, who got his start in residential real estate, says he could've gotten back into that business but he'd rather help others. 

"I always push mentees strongly to start in residential," says Weinstein. "I'd rather empower others to [revive Germantown's residential real estate]. This is a great, grassroots way to give people the knowledge and funding."

Writer: Rosella LaFevre
Source: Ken Weinstein, Philly Office Retail

 

Neighborhood Bike Works makes a big move

For almost 20 years, staff and the youth served by the nonprofit Neighborhood Bike Works (NBW) have hauled bicycles up and down the steps into the organization's basement headquarters. 

While they've had a great time in the subterranean section of St. Mary's Church on the University of Pennsylvania's campus, the time has come to open their own center. Last month, NBW announced plans to do just that: The organization is gearing up to move to 3939 and 3943 Lancaster Avenue, one mile from their current location in West Philadelphia. 

"We're a little hidden in this basement," explains Executive Director Erin DeCou. "But we wanted to stay nearby because our neighborhood has been so good to us."

The new location is close to where three communities -- Mantua, Belmont and Powelton -- converge. Currently, NBW must carefully balance its schedule of programming for youth and adults to make use of its limited square footage space. The Lancaster Avenue site combines two side-by-side storefront properties, giving the organization plenty of room for offices and two learning spaces.

Since 1996, NBW has helped over 4,500 young Philadelphians discover a love of cycling. Through education, hands-on bike-building and group rides, the Philly youth (ages 8-18) served by NBW develop job and life skills that serve them for years to come. NBW also hosts adult repair classes and "Bike Church," a recurring event where the community can get help fixing their rides and purchase affordable donated bikes or bike parts.

Later this summer, NBW will start the move, but to get the new space fully ready, they first have to raise $150,000. The organization will start by tapping the community and corporate sponsors, and follow that up with fundraising events.

Writer: Rosella LaFevre
Source: Erin DeCou, Neighborhood Bike Works

Groundswell and University City District give The Porch an upgrade

People used to rush through the sidewalk outside of 30th Street Station, determined to get to the train or to work in the neighborhood as quickly as possible. But then University City District (UCD) initiated a proof-of-concept test, hoping to prove that people would use the underutilized stretch of concrete as a public space -- if there was something to tempt them. 

In November 2011, The Porch at 30th Street Station was born. It featured planters, benches and café tables. The sunny, flexible spot became mighty popular as a lunch destination for nearby workers, but could it be more? 

On May 27, UCD and its design partner Groundswell opened what they call Porch 2.0 featuring an installation of nine tiered wooden platforms built around existing planters and benches to maximize the places where visitors can eat, hang out and enjoy themselves. The mission: Give people a place to really spend some time, preferably in off hours.

"We took it from a [place to] pause to a [place to] stay," explains David Fierabend, principal at Groundswell. The local firm is also responsible for stunning design projects such as Spruce Street Harbor Park, Morgan's Pier and Independence Beer Garden

The space is also upping its food game. The lunch trucks that had paid a flat fee to serve customers at The Porch are gone, replaced by a permanent food truck called Rotisserie at the Porch. Rotisserie will be managed by Michael Schulson, the restauranteur behind Sampan, Graffiti Bar, Independence Beer Garden and other eateries. There will also be a beverage trailer serving beer and liquor Wednesday through Saturday from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Prema Gupta, director of planning and economic development at UCD, hopes Philadelphians will be pleasantly surprised: "Where this is really interesting is that a small fraction of the people using it will come deliberately, but I think a lot of people will come out of 30th Street Station and decide to stay and check out The Porch." 

Writer: Rosella LaFevre
Source: David Fierabend, Groundswell

 

The Drake architects preview Philly's newest theater hub

After 18 years at the Adrienne, InterAct Theatre Company is moving to The Drake at 1512 Spruce Street, a former University of the Arts dance space. Metcalfe Architecture & Design (MA&D) has been working with InterAct (who will be leasing additional space to PlayPenn, Simpatico Theatre Project, Azuka Theatre and Inis Nua Theatre) to create the perfect new home, and they gave Flying Kite a preview of the layout.

The Center City-based company has a dual specialty, explains principal Alan Metcalfe: They’re an architecture and exhibit design firm that focuses on work for museums, schools, cultural institutions and other nonprofits.

Their dedication to spaces that foster social interaction is a great fit for the new vision at The Drake. There will be one box office, two black-box stages and two lobbies with separate entrancse. The InterAct lobby will double as a coffee and work lounge for Philly’s creative types during the day.

There are several unique components to the space. InterAct asked MA&D to scale back some of the design elements of their lobby, explains lead architect Chris Kircher, because one corner of that space will be reserved for "micro-performances," complete with rigging for lights and lighting controls. The theater company also insisted on unisex bathrooms for the lobby/lounge space.

The construction phase of the project, which the architects estimate will take about three months once all the necessary permits are acquired, will also have an unusual aspect -- employees of InterAct are pitching in on the actual construction: building their stage, the riders for the seating and some custom elements of the tech booth.

The seating for the InterAct stage will be fixed, while the slightly smaller second space will have removable seating, a sprung floor and a square shape, allowing for a very flexible performance area.

It’s been a special project all around, Metcalfe continues. The company and the architects were free from the need to wrestle with zoning codes to convert the use because the space is already zoned as a theater.

"Imagine how hard it is to find existing theater space in the middle of Center City," he says. "It was really a dream come true for InterAct." 

"In the lobbies themselves, there’ll be some exposed brick-work, exposed concrete beams and columns; all the piping and mechanical systems will be exposed," says Kircher of the space's "raw industrial-type feel...[There's] sort of an oxymoron in the idea that we’re exposing the truth about the architectural aspects of the space," but inside of a theater, which is all about creating artificial environments onstage.

"When we came into the space, everything was covered up, and we were gleefully pushing at ceiling panels, looking to see what was up there," recalls Metcalfe. "The world of theater and urban design has changed so much, from 'cover it all up and make it look like everything else' to 'let the character show.'"

InterAct is hoping to get into the Drake by September under a 15-year lease; the arts community should stay tuned for news of when performances will commence.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Sources: Alan Metcalfe and Chris Kircher, Metcalfe Architecture & Design

Could Spring Garden Street become the city's iconic greenway?

Almost everyone's heard of the Appalachian Trail, but how about the East Coast Greenway? It’s a developing trail system that stretches for 2,900 miles, winding its way from Maine to Florida. But the route through the City of Philadelphia remains lacking, and several years of planning have targeted Spring Garden Street as an optimal thoroughfare. It could be a transformational project, for travelers and residents alike.

On April 30 -- just before the biannual State of the Greenway Summit convened in Philly -- a team of federal auditors from the U.S. Department of Transportation visited the street to assess the plans.

The Greenway Summit was convened by the Durham, N.C.-based East Coast Greenway Alliance (ECGA). According to Executive Director Dennis Markatos-Soriano, ECGA chose Philly (where it has a regional office) in tribute to its recent progress in pioneering new trails and green spaces within the city.

"From Maine to Florida, they were so inspired by the progress in Philadelphia," he says. "They're going to go back to their communities and say, 'I want to do what Philadelphia [is doing].'"

The spotlight on Spring Garden as the ideal Philly piece of the Greenway -- running for 2.1 miles from Delaware Avenue to Pennsylvania Avenue -- has been growing since 2009, when the Pennsylvania Environmental Council completed its Center City Greenway Feasibility Study. That was followed in 2011 by a conceptual master plan for a "cycletrack" on Spring Garden, serving both Greenway users and everyday Philly commuters, while also boosting stormwater management and other green efforts. The study, which incorporated input from the surrounding communities, concluded that a new bike and pedestrian-centered pathway could still leave enough space for drivers and parking.

"It’s a great area. It already has bike lanes," says Markatos-Soriano of Spring Garden Street, but "many users have already identified that safety can be advanced."

Multi-modal is the word -- especially on the Philly portion of the trail.

"We are about helping people who may be currently driving around to see that there’s a safe space for active transport," he adds. He wants future trail users to know "they don’t have to get in the car and pay all that money for insurance and fuel."

The existing Greenway gets 10 million visits per year, and Markatos-Soriano is hoping that with continued expansions, that will jump to 100 million, making it "the most popular linear park in America." Many people already walk or bike long stretches of the Greenway, but without the tents and gear that Appalachian Trail users carry -- Greenway travelers can indulge in restaurants, hotels, and cultural and architectural attractions along the way.

The April 30 audit didn’t yield any firm deadlines for construction or a finalized plan, but "the fact that we’re having this conversation and bringing all the minds together is going to bring us the perfect solution," insists Markatos-Soriano, calling the Spring Garden Greenway stretch "a huge improvement that I know is going to be implemented."

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Sources: Dennis Markatos-Sorianos, East Coast Greenway Alliance

 

Beer, Zumba, art, science and more transform The Oval this summer

As discussion builds around a 2012-13 PennPraxis plan titled "More Park, Less Way: An Action Plan for the Benjamin Franklin Parkway," part of that initiative’s goal is already being realized: a freshly activated summer park space at the foot of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

"It envisioned some long-term permanent capital improvements, but also ways to activate spaces," explains Parks & Recreation First Deputy Commissioner Mark Focht of the 2013 shift that transformed the eight-acre space at 2451 Benjamin Franklin Parkway from Eakins Oval into "The Oval."

Long host to special events such as Fourth of July celebrations, the Oval is getting even more attention in terms of services and programming in summer 2015.

"We wanted to see how we could do a multi-week engagement that changed people’s perceptions of that space, and got folks engaged with it," says Focht.

Four weeks of programming in summer 2013 drew 35,000 visitors, and that number jumped to 80,000 last year. With Labor Day pushed to September 7 this year, that allows for an extra week of Oval fun -- the installation will run from July 15 through August 23. Based on the last two years, Focht projects even bigger attendance numbers for this summer.

Run through Parks & Rec and the Fairmount Park Conservancy, this year’s incarnation will boast over twenty programming partners, with free activities ranging from Zumba to bike safety sessions, storytelling, and art and science activities courtesy of nearby institutions such as the Art Museum and the Free Library.

The Trocadero will also bring back its beer garden, and up to four different food trucks will be on hand each day. Even the parking lot will get a makeover: In partnership with the Mural Arts Program, Baltimore-based artists Jessie Unterhalter and Katey Truhn will paint the surface with designs that will carry over into all of the Oval’s visual branding for 2015.

And before the Oval’s 2015 programming launches, it will host something "unlike anything anyone’s seen on the Parkway," enthuses Focht. Saint-Gobain’s "Future Sensations," a collection of five fantastical pavilions will be free and open to the public from May 30 through June 6.

Four pavilions from the exhibition have already traveled to Shanghai and Sao Paolo, and one never-before-seen pavilion will be added for the Philly stop. The show is off to Paris next.

The Conservancy and Parks & Rec call it "a sensory journey in science, storytelling and art that celebrates the past three-and-a-half centuries and offers glimpses into future innovations that will transform the world."

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Mark Focht, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation

 

High Point Wholesale brings new life to a former post office in Mt. Airy

In April, High Point Wholesale, a new branch of Mt. Airy's beloved High Point Café, officially cut the ribbon on its repurposed early-20th-century space at 6700 Germantown Avenue. The building was once home to Mt. Airy's original post office.
 
While it’s born out of the café -- which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year -- High Point Wholesale isn't a retail or restaurant location. It will house office space, a bakery for High Point's signature treats (including a self-contained gluten-free kitchen), coffee roasting and a shipping operation -- something that wasn't possible in the tiny original space. 

"I created High Point Wholesale as a separate business from the café," explains founder by Meg Hagele, a Mt. Airy native. "We recognized we had to raise money. I couldn’t do it on a wing and a prayer."

An initial round of fundraising from investors netted $365,000, and after searching throughout the northwest neighborhoods for a space, renovations began in winter 2014.

But the road was harder than Hagele and her supporters predicted. The site's first contractor proved incapable of handling the job and securing the necessary permits -- High Point Wholesale seemed destined to fail.

They were "emotionally and financially devastated," recalls Hagele. "It was a dark and hard time to get through...There was a real crisis of conscience. Do we walk away?"

She decided to push forward.

"We were so excited and invested in being on Germantown Avenue and being a part of the revitalization of the Mt. Airy corridor," she explains. Hagele jumped into reworking the numbers, and a new round of fundraising amassed close to $200,000.

"All of our investment is 100 percent from customers of the café," Hagele says proudly.

Early this year, a Kickstarter campaign for smaller-scale and more far-flung supporters added almost $40,000 to that total; the funds will go towards final construction costs.

High Point Wholesale now occupies the building's main floor (3,300 square feet); building owner Mt. Airy USA is on the lower level (1,900 square feet).

The site's second contractor had a creative mind -- the space boasts the original basement beams repurposed as windowsills and a partial wall around the offices, lamps salvaged from a 1950s Cincinnati airport, and natural hewn Lancaster County white oak office desks. A National Endowment for Democracy grant administered through Mt. Airy USA helped outfit the space with a specialized electrical system that’s expensive to install, but will save money and energy on the business' commercial ovens down the line.

An April 11 party in the revamped space was expected to draw about 300 people -- the turnout topped 500.

It told Hagele a lot about how her businesses impact the local community.

"They were invested," she muses, "whether or not they were investors."

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Meg Hagele, High Point Wholesale  

'Before I Die' closes at Drexel: University City's public space in transition

What do you want to do before you die? It’s an interesting question to pair with a complete makeover of one of Philly's educational landmarks. Over the past several months, Drexel University invited globetrotting artist Candy Chang to pose it as buildings at 38th and Powelton Streets were demolished.

Last summer, Drexel University City Development, LLC, in partnership with Wexford Science & Technology, LLC, bought the 14-acre site that housed the former University City High School, the Charles Drew Elementary School and the Walnut Center. According to a June 2014 statement from Drexel, the planned complex will total over 2.7 million square feet, with uses ranging from a new public school to residential, retail, recreational, laboratory and office space. The projected budget is almost $1 billion.

"It marks the end of one life and the beginning of another," says Chang of Drexel’s invitation to create one of her signature installations around the demolition site: Long chalkboard walls inscribed with line upon line following the words "Before I die I want to."

The designer and urban planner created her first "Before I Die" installation on a vacant building in New Orleans in 2011, and since then, with templates available to fans around the world, over 500 similar projects have sprouted up in 70 countries.

The University City site’s installation went up last fall, and it came down last week following the New Orleans-based Taiwanese-American artist’s April 30 lecture at Drexel: "Better Cities: Transforming Public Spaces Through Art & Design."

"The installation encourages people to pause and take a closer look at this space in transition," explains Chang.

In her process, she met with Powelton Village and Mantua community members to hear about the role the site played in their lives.

"One woman cried when she shared her memories of children who once went to that school," recalls the artist.

People have been sharing what they want to do before they die all over the walls of the installation. A few of Chang’s favorites include "drop all self-judgments" and "fix hearts I’ve broken."

"I also enjoyed some of the mashups of crude and contemplative responses. It reflects the gamut of humanity," she adds. Chang calls the installation a "personal anonymous prompt" which is "a gentle first step towards honesty and vulnerability in public," and increases trust and understanding in a community.

"These are essential elements for a more compassionate city, which can not only help us make better places but can help us become our best selves," she insists.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Candy Chang, “Before I Die”

Beautiful Bartram's Mile kicks off Philly's Civic Commons projects

The nice thing about a walk along the water isn’t just the pretty views, argues Schuylkill River Development Corporation (SRDC) spokesperson Danielle Gray of Bartram's Mile, recently announced as one of five projects in the city-wide Reimagining the Civic Commons initiative.

"The beautiful thing about a riverfront greenway is it’s a lot of different things to a lot of different people," she explains.

And of all the Civic Commons projects, Bartram's Mile's groundbreaking is first on the docket.

The new Southwest Philadelphia stretch of the existing Schuylkill Banks riverfront trail and greenway will reach from Grays Ferry Avenue to 58th Street. It’ll be one more link in the Schuylkill River Trail, the East Coast Greenway and the Circuit trail network, leading right to Bartram's Garden.

Though this venerable Philly site is a National Historic Landmark, it doesn’t get nearly the traffic it could.

"Bartram's is such a beautiful, unique historic location, and [SRDC’s] interim goal has always been to connect Bartram’s Garden to the rest of Philadelphia," says Gray. "For a lot of people it’s just completely off their radar."

This project also addresses a hot topic in Fairmount Park studies and initiatives: providing access to the river for residents who have been barred from this beautiful natural resource by everything from highways to industrial development.

"For over a century, the river has been cut off from the adjacent neighborhoods," explains Gray. "We’re really happy to be opening up new stretches of riverfront that have been cut off for so long."

And that riverfront trail isn’t just about getting from point A to point B. There will be space for activities such as fishing, outdoor yoga or tai chi, reading, playing and biking -- plus kayaking and riverboat tours, and plans for movie screenings at Bartram’s Garden.

The rehabbed stretch of land will also be good for the environment, with attention paid to stormwater management, wildlife habitat preservation and restoration, and new trees and meadows.

And it will be good for business.

"After the Center City section opened, we definitely saw an increase in commercial and residential development," adds Gray.

Once the trail is complete and offering a convenient new artery for walkers and bikers from across the city, brownfield sites north and south of Bartram’s Garden will be "more attractive to developers, which will help pave the way for future commercial and light industrial development in Southwest Philadelphia," argues a factsheet from the Fairmount Park Conservancy.

Project partners include Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, the non-profit SRDC, the John Bartram Association and other City agencies. The dollars are coming from the City of Philadelphia, the William Penn Foundation, PennDOT, the Pew Foundation, the Lenfest Foundation, Councilwoman Blackwell's office and the Knight Foundation.

"We’re getting closer to an exact timeline every day," Gray says of construction details. For now, the final design for the space is expected by late spring or early summer of this year, with a groundbreaking expected this summer. Gray projects a 2016 opening for the new trail.  

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Danielle Gray, Schuylkill River Development Corporation

 
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