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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

 

Mt. Airy USA and partners get $100,000 for neighborhood planning

This month, Mt. Airy USA announced that they had won a competitive $100,000 neighborhood planning grant, beating out applicants from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.
 
The dollars from the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation will kickstart a year-long study and planning process in the northwest Philly neighborhood, scrutinizing everything from early childhood education and vacant buildings to commercial corridors and senior living opportunities.
 
"We have taken a very collaborative approach in the application process to get this grant," explains Mt. Airy USA executive director Anuj Gupta; stakeholders include East & West Mt. Airy Neighbors, the Mt. Airy Business Improvement District, Weavers Way Co-op and more.
 
Now that they’ve got the grant, the dollars will be administered through Mt. Airy USA, which means "even more collaboration" with a "true cross-section of stakeholders," he adds. Gupta feels that the neighborhood's cooperative, community-driven legacy helped the organization stand out among other applicants.
 
A neighborhood plan was completed in 2004, but it has now become irrelevant. That’s because of progress that has already been made, but also challenges no one foresaw, such as the foreclosure crisis. A new comprehensive look at the neighborhood’s structure, recreational demand and opportunities, and commercial development was needed, and now, the money is there to do it, with the help of a professional team of evaluators and planners including Urban Partners.
 
Beginning this spring, the process will include "a comprehensive evaluation of Mt. Airy’s physical environment," explains Gupta, including "the way residents view their neighborhood as is, and also what they want to see it become over the coming years."
 
That means a property-by-property survey (including questions on resident satisfaction), widely accessible community forums, focus groups and stakeholder interviews.
 
The results will reveal the true extent of Mt. Airy's blight and vacancy, while identifying new opportunities for housing rehabilitation. There will also be a market-driven analysis of opportunities for growth on the commercial corridors.
 
The process will culminate in a comprehensive 10-year plan for Mt. Airy, and, yes, Gupta laughs, that means more fundraising. But the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation does offer a grant program for implementation, so the organizations may set their sights on that next.
 
Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Anuj Gupta, Mt. Airy USA

 

$2.75 million renovation for Temple's Center City campus launches with a new public cafe

This month, Temple University cut the ribbon on its renovated Center City campus, just west of the revamped Dilworth Park.

According to Temple Center City Campus Director William Parshall, the upgrades -- which include a Barnes and Noble-run bookstore and café open to the public at 1515 Market Street -- had been in the works for about four years; construction on the $2.75 million project didn’t begin until 2014.

The work was three-pronged: a re-done entrance to the main lobby, significant renovations to the Fox School of Business space on the sixth floor and the new bookstore/café.

The Fox renovations are in line with a bigger trend in higher education.

"They created a new type of classroom called a collaborative learning studio," explains Parshall. Two existing classrooms were combined into "one giant classroom" -- the furniture is all on wheels, from the chairs and desks to white-boards.

"It gives faculty a great deal more flexibility in how they teach," he continues. A class as large as 70 can be arranged in a traditional lecture format, but can also break easily into smaller groups.

In addition, the upgrades included converting office space into additional student breakout rooms with LCD desktops and projectors, and an enhanced MBA student lounge.

"We have always been limited in our ability to provide food on-site, and it’s been very popular," says Parshall of the new café. It had a soft opening on March 2 during spring break, and business is now in full swing.

"The timing worked out really well," he adds, referencing the transformation of Dilworth Park. "A lot of our undergraduate students take the Broad Street Subway," and the new City Hall entrances are now much more inviting. More extensive City Hall station renovations are in the pipeline at SEPTA.

Temple’s next big Center City goal is working with the owner of 2 Penn Center and SEPTA on improving the plaza between the two buildings. Currently home to little more than some bike-racks and "one big slab of concrete," the area is very dark at night.

"One of the things that we would really like to see happen is some friendly lighting…something that would illuminate the plaza," says Parshall, making everyone feel more comfortable overnight. 

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: William Parshall, Temple University

 

Do parklets really boost business? University City District gets the data

Are parklets -- the conversion of one or two parking spaces into an outdoor seating area complete with traffic-buffering plantings -- really a boost for nearby businesses? While plenty of detractors still insist that nothing maintains revenue and customer base like convenient parking, University City District (UCD) set out to quantify the impact of Philly’s first-ever parklets.

Working with the City of Philadelphia, UCD installed parklets in the spring and summer of 2011, turning parking spaces into attractive outdoor seating areas with the cooperation of adjacent businesses, who helped with clean-up and nighttime security for the benches and tables.

It seems like a socially, environmentally and economically positive initiative, but would the data be there to prove it? In March, UCD’s department of planning and economic development released a report titled "The Case for Parklets: Measuring the Impact on Sidewalk Vitality and Neighborhood Businesses."

The sample size so far is small: the user numbers, activities and demographics of six University City parklets observed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays in spring and summer of 2013. But UCD Manager of Policy and Research Seth Budick insists that the results buoy the case for more parklets in Philly and beyond.

He notes that the busiest parklets were near small businesses, including restaurants with more customers than they could seat inside.

"If you provide additional seating outside the business in a comfortable, attractive way, that’s going to right away have a positive association with sales," he argues.

Numbers from four participating University City businesses bear this out: On average, they saw a 20 percent increase in sales while the parklets were installed (remarkable, the study notes, since the summer is not the season of peak traffic in University City, when many students are away).

According to UCD, the parklets attracted a crowd, especially those stationed outside a taco shop and an ice cream parlor: "Over 150 unique users over the course of a day in the 240 square feet that could otherwise have hosted just one or two parked cars."

But there are less tangible benefits, too.

"The parklet just changes people’s larger perceptions of a street," says Budick. "Instead of being a place you merely pass through, it becomes a hub of activity, a nexus for the community."

Especially in an "urban village" like University City where many residents know one another, it’s a chance to meet friends in the street, linger in a comfortable outdoor place or stop into neighboring businesses for an impromptu snack or drink.

According to Budick, one parklet at 43rd and Baltimore was a particularly good example of this. Already a "crossroads of the neighborhood" near the park, a farmer’s market and many businesses, a new "synergy" popped up in the former parking space.

"That feeds back into business activity," he continues. "It’s really what we call placemaking -- creating what people perceive as a place where before it was an intersection."

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Seth Budick, University City District

 

Big announcements, big fun on the Delaware Waterfront this summer

"The additions to the Delaware River Waterfront in recent years are truly remarkable," enthused Mayor Michael A. Nutter on April 9 at the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation's summer programming announcement. The upcoming warm-weather festivities will include a first-of-its-kind outdoor roller rink and the return of Spruce Street Harbor Park. 

Since 2009, the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation has worked to activate the city's underused spaces. This year, the organization is partnering with Independence Blue Cross and Univest/Valley Green Bank, enabling them to move toward seven-day-a-week programming.

"[This] helps us build towards our mission of making the waterfront a recreation destination throughout the year," explains Communications Manager Emma Fried-Cassorla.

Blue Cross RiverRink Summerfest, Philadelphia's first and only outdoor roller rink, will replace the popular Blue Cross RiverRink Winterfest site, giving the space year-round vibrancy. The rink  -- featuring roller and in-line skates as well as a high-end roller-hockey-grade flooring system -- will be open seven days a week from May 22 through the end of September. 

The Winterfest Lodge will transform into a boathouse-themed restaurant and venue, decorated in a relaxed summer vibe. The whole fest will be free and open to the public (with roller skating being the only ticketed activity; Independence Blue Cross cardholders skate for free).

Also luring the hot, thirsty and bored east will be the return of Spruce Street Harbor Park (SSHP). The wildly-popular boardwalk-inspired installation will open Memorial Day weekend, a month earlier than last year, and expand its offerings -- that means more seating, more hammocks, more dining choices, more beer and more family-friendly attractions. The park will also boast a new meadow donated by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a re-imagined version of the Oasis.

In addition to the new outdoor roller rink and SSHP, Philadelphians and visitors can also enjoy a slate concerts, festivals, and movies along the waterfront this summer. 

Writer: Hailey Blessing
Source: Delaware River Waterfront Corporation

Reading Viaduct Park -- and four other exciting projects -- get green light

"All our childhood memories go back to a park story, a recreation center story, or a library story," argued Mayor Michael Nutter at a March 16 press conference at the Fairmount Park Horticulture Center. It was an appropriate sentiment since he was announcing a $11 million investment in the Fairmount Park Conservancy and its Reimagining the Civic Commons initiative.

The Knight Foundation, with a commitment of $5.4 million, and the William Penn Foundation, bringing $5.5 million to the table, are teaming up to provide these funds, which will in turn support five major civic projects, some of which have held the public imagination for decades.

The dollars, Nutter said, would further the city’s goal of making "Philadelphia the number one green city in the United States of America." The common denominator of all the projects, he added, is that they will revitalize and transform underutilized, under-resourced spaces.

Speakers joining Nutter were Fairmount Park Conservancy Executive Director Kathryn Ott Lovell; Michael DiBerardinis, Deputy Mayor for Environmental & Community Resources and Parks and Recreation Commissioner; William Penn Executive Director Laura Sparks; and Carol Coletta, vice president for community and national initiatives at the Knight Foundation.

According to Sparks, the investment will continue to build Philadelphia’s profile as a world-class destination for "shared spaces that a diverse population can enjoy." Partly because of our booming Millennial population, "Philadelphia is the ideal national laboratory" for civic space experiments like these, and foundations with a nationwide lens are recognizing it.

Reimagining the Civic Commons, according to the Conservancy, will "explore whether reinventing and connecting public spaces as a network of civic assets will help cities attract and keep talented workers," boost the economy, help get residents more engaged, and "begin to level the playing field between more affluent communities and those in need."

Instead of competing for funds, organizations involved will be able to collaborate with each other.

The conference included details on the five selected projects.

A collaboration between Audubon Pennsylvania and Outward Bound will help create The Discovery Center in East Fairmount Park to inspire leadership development and environmental stewardship near the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood.

The Conservancy dollars will also finally make the Reading Viaduct Rail Park a reality, repurposing it as a green public space that will rise from ground level to cross three city streets. Center City District and Friends of the Rail Park will join together to make it happen.

The Bartram’s Mile Trail Project along the lower Schuylkill River is part of the region’s planned 750-mile Circuit Trail Network. It will be tackled thanks to a partnership between Philadelphia Parks & Recreation and the Schuylkill River Development Corporation.

The funds will also ensure the completion of Lovett Memorial Library and Park in Mt. Airy, with support from the Free Library and Mt. Airy U.S.A.

Finally, the dollars will transform an underutilized piece of West Fairmount Park into the Centennial Commons, a family-friendly playspace for the Parkside community. The Fairmount Park Conservancy will helm this project.

Stay tuned for more from Flying Kite about the plans for these individual projects.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Sources: Mayor Michael Nutter; Kathryn Ott Lovell, the Fairmount Park Conservancy; Laura Sparks, the William Penn Foundation, and Carol Coletta, the Knight Foundation. 

 

Stinger Square in Grays Ferry is getting a $500,000 upgrade

The March 20 groundbreaking for Germantown’s Vernon Park upgrade, part of a city-wide initiative called Green 2015, had to be rescheduled when the first day of spring brought an all-day snowstorm. But Stinger Square Park in the Grays Ferry section of the city had better luck with its own Green 2015 groundbreaking in late February. According to Parks and Rec First Deputy Commissioner for Parks and Facilities Mark Focht, everything is on track.

Green 2015 is happening in collaboration with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, the Philadelphia Water Department and the Fairmount Park Conservancy.

"We want to complete the improvements at Stinger prior to opening the pool around July 1," Focht says of the estimated $505,000 upgrade. "The pool brings a lot of kids in, so we want the park done prior to that."

The Water Department is funding part of the project, spending $220,000 for two rain gardens that will go in on the northeast and northwest corners of the square. They will also contribute to some new landscaping.

"This is about managing stormwater from the adjacent streets," explains Focht. "So it’s pulling stormwater from the streets into the rain garden and it’s using the plantings at the entrance of the park to treat the stormwater."

The rest of the dollars are coming from Councilman Kenyatta Johnson’s office, which is providing $150,000; Parks and Rec has committed $110,000 and will cover any extra costs up to the project's full estimated budget.

The renovations will also include concrete replacement, refurbished seating, new picnic tables, and square game tables marked with grids so they’re ready for chess, checkers, backgammon or whatever neighbors might want to play. In addition, the work will remove existing dead trees and plant new ones to provide shade for park users.

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

 

Constitution Health Plaza adds medical care to Passyunk revitalization

A "dinosaur" of a hospital on the corner of Broad Street and Passyunk Avenue is getting a new life as part of the ongoing revitalization of the area. Purchased three years ago by St. Agnes MOB LLC., a small investment firm, the former St. Agnes Hospital (a 150-year-old building) is now Constitution Health Plaza. According to leasing and marketing director Elizabeth Daly, 18 tenants are already installed in the four-building complex and the site's occupancy is ahead of schedule.

Constitution Plaza is part of a larger trend in healthcare. Over twenty hospitals closed last year in New Jersey alone, but complexes like this one -- that offer a variety of independent practitioners in one rehabbed space -- are beginning to take the floundering hospitals' place.

"The idea is one-stop shopping for the community, for any of your medical needs," explains Daly. "Somebody will be able to come to one building and go to different practitioners."

Constitution Health Plaza takes facilities management, security, utilities, real estate concerns, and other operations off its tenants' plates, with the aim of providing more cost-efficient medical care just in time for the influx of patients newly insured under the Affordable Care Act.

Plaza residents include a location of the Children’s Hospital of PhiladelphiaKindred Hospital, and specialists practicing dermatology to nephrology to psychiatry. And the facility is joint-commission certified, notes Daley -- the Kindred location has acute care inpatient capabilities, so a critically ill person can stay longer than 24 hours. While there are a lot of targeted options and the building is currently at about 75 percent occupancy, the complex doesn’t yet offer adult primary-care services. It’s a provider the plaza would definitely like to attract, along with dental care and an orthodontist.

The renovation plans kept some of the building’s original marble, but included modern upgrades such as an atrium with plenty of natural light, a fresh lobby and a security desk. The different floors are color-coded for ease of navigation, especially important for patients who might not speak English; the facility also boasts an attached 425-car parking garage.

A multi-million dollar exterior upgrade added outdoor security cameras, extensive new lighting, and a large high-definition video signage board advertising the health plaza's services as well as other community happenings.

"On the exterior we really want it to be a landmark along Broad Street," says Daly. "South Philadelphia is very unique neighborhood, and it’s pretty exciting for us to be right in the middle of where the revitalization is taking place…it’s complemented each other: [the]] investment in the building and people’s enthusiasm for the East Passyunk corridor."

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Elizabeth Daly, Constitution Health Plaza

Vernon Park breaks ground on a $1.2 million upgrade

A major upgrade is coming for Germantown Avenue's Vernon Park -- and it should be completed by this summer. On Friday, March 20, 8th District Councilwoman Cindy Bass will join Deputy Major Michael Diberardinis and representatives from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, the Philadelphia Water Department, and the Fairmount Park Conservancy to break ground on the renovations.

Green 2015 (which launched in 2012), the project’s umbrella, is "an initiative to upgrade the quality of the public environment at our smaller neighborhood parks and recreation centers," explains Mark Focht, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation’s first deputy commissioner for parks and facilities. "We’ve worked really closely with members of [City] Council to have them select sites in their districts that have great citizen involvement, but needed some help or support."

Improvements to Vernon Park will include better walkways, new play equipment and the addition of adult fitness equipment so parents or grandparents can work out while the youngsters play. The make-over will also feature new benches and picnic tables.

"The other significant thing is we’re completely upgrading the lighting in the entire park, so all the paths will be re-lit with very high-quality lighting," says Focht. And compared to other Green 2015 participants (including Grays Ferry’s Stinger Square Park, another renovation currently underway), "Vernon is a little unique because we have these three major monuments in it…they’re great architectural and sculptural features in the park."

The current upgrade will include cleaning and new lighting for these landmarks.

The $1.2 million dollars for the project came mostly from the 8th District council office, to the tune of $850,000, with Parks and Recreation furnishing the remaining $350,000. The work will take place throughout April, May and June, and will not restrict access to Center in the Park or Vernon House. Only about half of the park will need to be closed completely, around the northern and western edges where the current playground is.

"We’ve committed to the Councilwoman and the neighbors that it’ll be done in time for their jazz concert series" in July, Focht insists.

The Vernon Park groundbreaking ceremony will take place on Friday, March 20 from 2 - 3 p.m.

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

Is a convenience store makeover in Bella Vista a missed opportunity?

On February 10, a large crowd gathered at the Palumbo Recreation Center for a Bella Vista Neighbors Association (BVNA) zoning meeting. On the docket: a potential make-over for the convenience store at Eighth and Bainbridge Streets. The "contemplated application," according to BVNA, would turn the current store into a "Foodery-style eat-in, sit-down restaurant with artisan beer, which would retain some of the current retail use.”

The potential developer didn’t respond to a request for comment, but BVNA Zoning Committee member Jason Lempieri, who was on hand for the meeting, spoke with Flying Kite about the plans, and their limitations.

In short, when he looks at the stone-and-siding mock-up of the new store and its proposed business plan -- which wouldn’t alter the existing one much except for the addition of "artisan beer" to the shelves -- "I yawn," he says. With a surfeit of nearby stores and restaurants where locals can grab a beer, "How are you competing? What makes you different?" he asks.

That might be the case, but the neighborhood does have a dearth of craft-centric bottle shops. Lempieri emphasizes that neighbors do appreciate the store’s current proprietor and the customer service he provides -- many came out to explicitly support the upgrade -- but argues that the surface-level parking lot (very convenient to the business-owner, who wants people to pull in easily for sandwiches and coffee) has been a hazard for a long time.

"Parents say, 'I’m walking my kids and the cars are backing up and it’s really unnerving,' and this is true," he explains. Without a raised curb and sidewalk between the street and the parking lot, "You can pull up wherever you want," and it’s not safe for pedestrians.

There’s no word on whether the proposed redevelopment would remedy this issue, but Lempieri has his own dream for the site, if the proprietor was willing to step a little further from the current business model.

The property is desirable because of that parking lot area, but "you can do more than just parking," he insists. In a perfect world, a new business offering artisan beers alongside the usual food and snack items could convert that space into a beer garden with relatively little up-front investment. That would really be something new for the neighborhood.

Lempieri wishes Philly businesses were in the habit of thinking bigger. Will the ultimate redevelopment of the store result in a new beer garden or something else unique and desirable for the neighborhood?

"I highly doubt it," he admits. "But the neighborhood should demand it."

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Jason Lempieri, Bella Vista Neighbors Association

 
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