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High-end billiards club project known as 1200 Bank gets a green light from City Council

Nearly six months have passed since we last reported on 1200 Bank, the decidedly swish billiards club being designed by DAS Architects, and which local developer Paul Giegerich plans to construct inside the once-grand Beneficial Bank building at 1200 Chestnut Street, the exterior of which has "become kind of a prime attraction for homeless people," as architect David Schultz puts it.

In the interim, residents of a condominium building located across the street objected to the club's plans to add a rooftop bar, citing the potential for excess noise. But last week, the project went before the City Council's Rules Committee and passed; it was also unanimously approved by the Historical Commission and the Planning Commission. That may have had something to do with the fact that the construction of the 1200 Bank project, according to Schultz, won't require any serious alterations to the historic building, which was designed by the noted Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer. "We're not going to alter the space," Schultz explains. "We're going to embellish the space."

Of course, 1200 Bank will involve some modern-day concessions, including an elevator, a minimalist staircase, and the aforementioned rooftop bar, which will be glass-enclosed and sporting a retractable roof. "If you can imagine what a turn-of-the-century billiards club might look like," says Schultz, "that's what we'd like to achieve. The branding and imagery of the project is high-end, old world luxury."

Currently, 1200 Bank's price tag is somewhere around the $6 million mark. And assuming the project passes its final City Council vote, Schultz estimates that the club's doors could open in as little as 12 to 16 months after that.

"This is not the concept that some people have of a pool hall," Schultz adds. "Nothing like this exists in Philadelphia now, and I don't even know if there's anything in the country that's quite like this."

Source: David Schultz, DAS Architects
Writer: Dan Eldridge

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A boundless playground for disabled and able-bodied children to share is set for Cherry Hill

In October 2007, 2 year-old Jacob Myles Nasto, who was born with a rare heart defect, passed away from complications following his fourth open-heart surgery. Jacob's mother "was so stricken with grief that she was walking in a fog," says Lynn Cummings, who is Jacob's grandmother.

Lynn Cummings is also one of the founders of a Camden County nonprofit, Build Jake's Place, which was created as a memorial to Jacob's life after a family friend made a financial donation in the child's name. Currently, the nonprofit is busy raising funds to develop Camden County's first-ever Boundless Playground, a fully-accessible and integrated play area where children and adults of any physical ability - disabled or abled - can play and learn together. "My daughter, that moment, woke up," says Cummings, referring to the decision to build the memorial playground.

Jake's Place, as the playground will be known, is being constructed at Challenge Grove Park in Cherry Hill, N.J. And because there are only about 130 Boundless Playgrounds in the entire nation, it's being expressly designed as a major destination park, with 100 on-site parking spaces. Naturally, the park will also be rich in special amenities; Jake's Place will include a wheelchair-accessible glider, specially-secured swings, and double-wide sliding boards. "This is a playground for everybody," says Cummings, "whether your body is in a wheelchair, or on crutches, or you're disabled and you want to follow your child around on the playground."

Boundless Playgrounds, of course, don't come cheap. According to Cummings, construction and equipment costs can run as high as $500,000, and Build Jake's Place still needs to raise another $100,000 before breaking ground this July, and then opening in October. The nonprofit has a number of upcoming fundraising efforts planned; click here to learn more.

Source: Lynn Cummings, Build Jake's Place
Writer: Dan Eldridge

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Free Library's Central Branch gets extensive, long overdue facelift

If you've ever spent time wandering through the stacks at the Free Library of Philadelphia's Central branch, you'll certainly be forgiven for wondering why on earth the library is currently in the midst of a $175 million expansion and renovation project. The Central branch, after all, is a stunning structure to the naked eye.

But talk to Siobhan Reardon, the library's president and director, and you'll learn that expansion plans for the 280,000 square-foot building go all the way back to the 1960s. That expansion never happened, of course. And when the library considered expansion again in the 1990s, those plans fell through as well. The building is now 80 years old, and as Reardon says, "It's suffering the effects of never having been upgraded or restored in any way, shape or form."

That's all about to change, however. Scaffolding recently went up at the Central branch, and over the next few years, the building will be undergoing tremendous change. The main goal of the renovation, Reardon says, is to make a greater portion of the library more accessible to the general public. Currently, a full two-thirds of the building is accessible only by staff members. 

During the renovation, which is tentatively scheduled for completion in 2015, stacks will be relocated and administrative offices will be moved. The building's top level will be transformed into what Reardon is calling an information commons - a creative space where technology training will take place. Meanwhile, an 80,000 square-foot addition to the Central branch will house a new auditorium, a new children's library, and a teen center.

"The goal now is to rearrange the collections in a way that makes more sense to the public," Reardon adds. "We need to deal with the fact that in this building, we have not been serving our public very well at all."

Siobhan A. Reardon, Free Library of Philadelphia
Dan Eldridge

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South Philly's Hawthorne Park brings city another step closer to Green 2015

When Penn Praxis and the City of Philadelphia launched the ambitious Green2015 plan back in December 2010, it was announced that one of the program's main goals would include the transforming of 500 city acres of underused land into green spaces accessible by any member of the public. This month, ground was finally broken at the new Hawthorne Park, the first park to be constructed since the announcement. Construction of the three-quarter acre green space, which is located at the corner of 12th and Catherine streets in South Philadelphia, will cost $2.2 million, with $1.1 million coming in the form of a grant from the state's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

"We've got a 9,200-acre park in the city," says Mayor Nutter's Press Secretary, Mark McDonald, referring to Fairmount Park. "But we've also got a lot of neighborhoods that are quite a ways from any kind of a green space. And this Hawthorne Park is a wonderful reclamation of what had been a housing area, but now is going to be transformed into a really beautiful place where people in an urban environment can walk in, and just chill."

What's more, Hawthorne Park is being designed as a sustainable green space, and will be part of a two-year sustainable construction and landscape design program known as SITES. According to Parks and Recreation Commissioner Michael DiBerardinis, the majority of the park's sustainable aspects will revolve around stormwater runoff issues. The Philadelphia Water Department, he explains, is "trying to manage all stormwater naturally, so (Hawthorne Park) will capture stormwater from around the [park's] immediate area, and naturally manage it, and not run it into holding tanks."

According to the mayor's office, Hawthorne Park will also feature low-energy lighting. A variety of plants will also be introduced to the park, which is expected to be complete by spring 2012

Source: Michael DiBerardinis, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation
Writer: Dan Eldridge

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People for People will use coffee shop to disrupt poverty cycle in North Philly

A coffee shop isn't widely used as a tactic in the battle against poverty.  The nonprofit People for People, an organization whose mission is "to break the generational cycle of poverty in the lives of (North Central Philadelphia) residents" is poised to do just that. The organization's project, a coffee shop known as PFP Cafe, is scheduled to open this September near the intersection of North Broad Street and Fairmount Avenue.

Frank Robinson, PFP's Director of Development, says: "We wanted to do something that would continue to promote economic development for our area. And we wanted something we could use to train people in our jobs programs. (The PFP Cafe) will be like a live training ground."

People for People was designated in 2006 as an EARN Center by the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare; one of its major goals involves helping the unemployed and underemployed with hands-on job readiness training. The cafe, which will serve coffee and bakery items, will give PFP's welfare-to-work clients a chance to practice their work skills in a real-life environment. What's more, the cafe will provide two or three full-time jobs, as well as dozens of rotating part-time positions. The ultimate goal, says Robinson, is for those workers to eventually transition into full-time positions in the service, retail or hospitality industries.

"We're changing lives," Robinson adds. "(PFP Cafe) is just another way to make sure people get the training they need to get jobs, and to help the economy. That's what we're doing."

Source: Frank Robinson, People for People
Writer: Dan Eldridge

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Up-and-coming Phoenixville stands to grow even more with massive mixed-use development

Those of you who've lived in Greater Philadelphia for more than six or seven years will almost certainly be able to remember when the Chester County suburb of Phoenixville, which sits about 30 miles northwest of Center City, was anything but hip. The collapse of the steel industry in the mid-1970s, of course, seemed to be the beginning of the end for Phoenixville. But sometime around 2005, the town's main drag, Bridge Street, began sprouting with the signs of economic growth, including a wealth of boutiques, cafes and restaurants and the revitalized Colonial Theater.

"In six years, (Phoenixville) has gone 180 (degrees)," says Barry Cassidy, a project manager for The DeMutis Group, which wants to build a seven-acre mixed use development on a portion of the former Phoenix Steel site. "It went from nobody being down there except the drug dealers and prostitutes, to everybody (being) here. Even the drug dealers and prostitutes!"

According to Cassidy, the project, which is tentatively scheduled for an August groundbreaking, will include a 30,000 square-foot standalone office building, as well as 80,000 square-feet of retail space. Sitting atop the retail, meanwhile, will be 275 apartments. Cassidy also hopes to build an onsite parking garage and a series of condos he's referring to as work-life units, where a glassblower or a painter, for instance, could work in a street-level studio while also living in the back. "We're going to market those to craftsmen and artists," he says.

As for the specific types of businesses that might be occupying the site, Cassidy claims his group has adopted something of an arts and entertainment economic development strategy, and will be actively recruiting galleries, artists and craftsmen. All of them, no doubt, the sorts of businesses that will only serve to improve Phoenixville's artsy, up-and-coming reputation.

"We're like the crown jewel of sustainability here," Cassidy says of his development partners. "We're a lot different than the others."

Source: Barry Cassidy, The DeMutis Group
Writer: Dan Eldridge

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Architecturally stunning housing for Francisville, one of city�s most economically diverse sections

Located just east of Philadelphia's upscale Fairmount neighborhood, and just north of Spring Garden, the small North Philly district of Francisville is probably best known locally for its extreme economic diversity. And now, two of the organizations that have been most active in changing and improving the face of the neighborhood--a nonprofit developer known as Community Ventures, and the Francisville Neighborhood Development Corporation--have teamed up to create the 44-unit Francisville East, an affordable housing development with a stunning aesthetic sensibility that belies its status as a low-income development.

Outsiders who visit the neighborhood, in fact, often mistakenly assume that Francisville East is an example of the gentrification taking place there. "It's kind of interesting," says Community Venture's David LaFontaine, with a chuckle. "(One of the TV networks) did a news report on Francisville, and they kept taping our building. But they were referring to all the economic changes and the gentrification. It is a really nice building," he adds. "It's the most attractive thing being built. But it's not actually gentrification."

Not even close. Residents of Francisville East, in fact, earn somewhere between 20 and 60 percent of the area's median income. And the project's apartment building, which is home to 27 one-bedroom units, was built specifically with senior citizens and the handicapped in mind. Still, the decidedly modern development, which sits on the 1500 block of Poplar Street, and on a lot that was previously trash-strewn and filled the detritus of construction equipment, also features a small garden, permeable sidewalks, solar panels, and off-street parking.

"The neat part," LaFontaine adds, "is that we sort of tackled the worst block in the neighborhood. It was sort of the epicenter of blight in Francisville. And we got rid of it."

Source: David LaFontaine, Community Ventures
Writer: Dan Eldridge

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Keep Philly Beautiful celebrates those who keep the neighborhood tidy

In Philadelphia, at least, there seems to be one in every neighborhood: The little old lady who sweeps the sidewalk every Saturday morning, for instance. Or maybe the family man next door, who surprises you on snowy days by shoveling your stoop before you've even gotten out of bed. At the offices of Keep Philadelphia Beautiful, a nonprofit whose mission involves "engag[ing] individuals to take greater responsibility for improving their community environments," those kindly neighbors are lovingly referred to as community leaders. And from now until March 21, KPB is asking anyone who happens to know such a neighbor to nominate them for its Token Appreciation Awards. The award winners will be presented with a medallion on April 1 during a recognition ceremony at which Miss America 2011, Teresa Scanlon, will appear as a special guest.

"I wanted to fill a void," says Phoebe Coles, the nonprofit's executive director, when asked how the awards came to be. "I realized there were so many people in the city doing good work. And they don't necessarily get recognized, even in their neighborhoods."

In 2008, when KPB first celebrated the city's community leaders, there was "a really nice cross-section of people that were nominated," says Coles, including the bicycle activist Russell Meddin. And yet unfortunately, there were no kids nominated in 2008; that's a situation Coles hopes to rectify this time around. "I'm particular about trying to find some people to highlight the youth in their community who are doing good work," she says. "Because I know there's a lot of them out there!"

To nominate a selfless someone in your part of Philadelphia, simply send a nomination note of 50 words or less to [email protected]. And let's put that whole "Filthadelphia" thing to rest, once and for all. (For complete nomination instructions, click here.)

Source: Phoebe Coles, Keep Philadelphia Beautiful
Writer: Dan Eldridge

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Marathon Restaurants� next location? An urban farm in Brewerytown

It's nearly impossible these days to walk through downtown Philadelphia without passing by at least one outpost of the local Marathon restaurant group, which now has six separate eateries in the city. Marathon is currently in the process of constructing its seventh location, although this particular site, which is being built atop a vacant lot in Brewerytown, won't have four walls or a ceiling, or even a proper kitchen or a dining room. That's because Marathon's newest location will actually be an urban farm. The company is building it with the dual intentions of providing fresh food to the community and the various Marathon restaurants.

The idea for the farm was initially planted about nine months ago, when Marathon's owner, Cary Borish, was looking for new ways to make his restaurants more environmentally friendly. At the time, says Borish, "I didn't really understand what the spirit of urban farming was." But after Borish became reacquainted with a former employee, Patrick Dunn, who runs an urban farm in East Kensington, "I really bought into it, and a light went off," he says.

Dunn laid down the basic tenets of the urban farming philosophy--food security, nutrition, the fostering of community--and the two men realized they could use the restaurant not only as a vehicle to raise money for the project, but also to help build awareness of the urban farming movement in general. What's more, Borish says that while roughly half of the food grown will be served in his restaurants, the remaining half will be sold at reasonable rates at at an on-site food stand.

The 15,750 square-foot farm is scheduled to be up and running by March 21. A fundraising 'Hoedown' event will happen March 20 at Marathon's 929 Walnut Street location, while on March 26, a candlelit 'Farmraiser Dinner' will take place at the restaurant's 1339 Chestnut Street location.

Source: Cary Borish, Marathon
Writer: Dan Eldridge

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Renovation of historic Presser Home in Mt. Airy earns renters, recognition

Unless you're a local history buff or an architecture enthusiast, you've probably never heard of the building now known as Presser Senior Apartments, an historic structure at 101 West Johnson Street in Mt. Airy. It was commissioned in 1914 by the sheet music publisher Theodore Presser, and interestingly enough, it was developed as a home for retired music teachers.

Constructed of brick, limestone and terra cotta, the structure was one of only two in the world built specifically for retired music teachers. The other was Milan's Casa di Riposo per Musicisti; following a trip to Italy, it inspired Presser to create something similar in Philadelphia.

In 2002, however, the 52,248 square-foot building became vacant, and although it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005, it nevertheless turned into something of a crumbling eyesore. Certainly, if not for its historic status, it would have been a perfect candidate for demolition. Instead, the building was acquired by the locally-based Nolen Properties in 2006. Working with the architecture firm JKR Partners, Nolen's resulting historic restoration was such a huge success that it won a 2011 Grand Jury Award from the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia.

"The biggest challenge we had," said Rick Sudall, Nolen's director of operations, involved "converting 86 single rooms into 45 apartments." In the Presser Building's original form, its rooms contained only a closet and a sink; shared bathrooms were located down the hall. Following the year-long, multimillion dollar renovation, however, the new apartments now come complete with all mod cons.

Even better, historic preservation societies clearly aren't the only interested entities: As of this writing, Nolen has received some 300 applications for Presser's 45 units. And while new residents certainly don't have to be former music teachers, they do have to be median-income senior citizens. The lucky few will be moving in sometime over the next few months.

Source: Rick Sudall, Nolen Properties
Writer: Dan Eldridge

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From blight to blossom at the Flower Show: How vacant lots in Kensington were transformed

It probably goes without saying that the average visitor to the Philadelphia International Flower Show, which kicked off this past Sunday and runs through March 13, doesn't likely expect to encounter anything even remotely political or societally challenging during their time at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where the show is being held. But this year, along with the copious floral displays and the gardening exhibitions, the nonprofit New Kensington CDC will be hosting an exhibit that began as a vacant and littered inner-city lot, and which explores the significant effect that simple, do-it-yourself gardening can have on blighted urban neighborhoods.

"From Blight to Blossom" is the name of the exhibit, and its conception was the result of a partnership between the New Kensington CDC and Philadelphia's Office of Housing and Community Development. Its intention, according to a press release describing the project, is to "tell the story of an urban side-yard transformed from a vacant lot into a garden."

"It struck us as a really good opportunity to let the public know about the ways in which the city is working with local groups to improve the quality of life in the city's neighborhoods," says Paul Chrystie, of the OHCD. The exhibit itself is essentially a recreated lot that has been transformed by Kensington-area children. There are hand-painted flower pots and a garden path built of steppingstones, and as Chrystie explains, the project, which was paid for by the Philadelphia Flower Show, was completed for less than $1,000. The idea, says Chrystie, is to convince visitors to undertake something similar in their own neighborhoods.

"It really is an economic development strategy as well as an aesthetic and an environmental one," Chrystie says of the greening of vacant city lots, which has been proven to increase property values. "And that's one of the reasons we've been funding them for so long."

Source: Paul Chrystie, Philadelphia Office of Housing and Community Development  
Writer: Dan Eldridge

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Showtime in Market East: Newly expanded Convention Center is officially open for business

It's hard to believe that the $787 million expansion of Center City's Pennsylvania Convention Center has only been moving forward for a little over three years now. But on March 4, one of modern-day Philadelphia's most monumental economic growth facilitators will officially open for business with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. And on March 9, when the International Flower Show kicks off inside the Convention Center's existing building, the 3,000 attendees of the NASPA convention will be simultaneously holding court inside the building's newly expanded section.

In other words, two events that will almost certainly encourage serious economic activity here will be taking place inside the Convention Center at the same time next week. The expansion, it's worth noting, has increased the size of the PCC by 62 percent; it now clocks in at a jaw-dropping 1 million square feet, and it's expected to have over $140 million in economic impact annually.  

After all, as Jack Ferguson, CEO of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, says, "The Pennsylvania Convention Center is the hospitality economic engine that drives Philadelphia. Now with this world-class venue, an expanded center is generating a greater buzz about Philadelphia as a destination throughout the nation. This will attract more events, meetings, conventions, tradeshows and businesses to want to invest here."

As Ferguson rightly points out, an economic upper-hand isn't the only important aspect of the expansion story; there are also the substantial bragging rights. The new center, for instance, will be home to the largest ballroom in the Northeast corridor (55,400 square feet), as well as 528,000 square feet of contiguous exhibition space. Of course, words alone can't really do justice to the new Broad Street Atrium, or the multi-story glass entrance that will greet visitors at the building's Broad Street entrance. Click here and here to experience them yourself, online. 

Source: Liz Sullivan, Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau
Writer: Dan Eldridge

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North 28 is Brewerytown�s first construction north of Girard in five years

Regardless of whether or not you believe that the current real estate crisis is finally coming to a close, the fact remains that there will probably always be neighborhoods in Philadelphia that are optimally ripe for renewal. According to Jacob Roller of MM Partners LLC, a real estate development and management company with offices on West Girard Avenue, Brewerytown may very well the next ideal neighborhood in line for something of an aesthetic and cultural transformation.

Already, MM Partners has been responsible for bringing an outpost of the local Mugshots CoffeeHouse & Cafe chain to Brewerytown; they've also rehabbed countless residential and retail properties up and down the main drag of West Girard. The company's current residential project, however, is its most ambitious yet in the neighborhood.

Known as North 28, and located just north of the Fairmount neighborhood at 1238 North 28th Street, the project is a "15 unit building with 15 gated parking spaces," according to the MM Partners website. It's also the first residential development to be built north of Girard in the past five years; the last was the Westrum Development Company's 144-unit Brewerytown Square project. Interestingly enough, North 28 is being built as a modular construction project, and the units have been approved for both sale and rental.

But as Roller explains it, the focus of his company, which he co-owns with business partner David Waxman, doesn't actually begin and end with residential construction. Rather, it's concerned with the overall revival of the Brewerytown neighborhood because, as Roller says, "We think retail drives residential growth."

The company plans to break ground on the 14,500 square-foot lot where North 28 will sit in roughly a month or two. Rental units, which will run from $900 to $1,450 per month, should be available for viewing this May.

Source: Jacob Roller, MM Partners LLC
Writer: Dan Eldridge

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University City Innovation Collaborative's development plans to offer more for West Philly talent

It's certainly no secret, at least to those of us who call Philadelphia home, that the University City district has for many years now been the proverbial nucleus of an incredibly well-connected and highly knowledgeable cluster of medical, science and academic professionals. But unfortunately, the area's so-called 'Eds and Meds' leaders have never fully succeeded in branding their community as one of the nation's most important research centers. That perception--or rather, the lack thereof--may soon be changing, thanks to the work of a newly-formed group calling itself the University City Innovation Collaborative.

The group is being headed by the University City Science Center; the nonprofit University City District; and the Science Center's development partner, a Baltimore company known as Wexford Science and Technology.

The aim of the group, according to Stephen Tang, the Science Center's CEO, involves making University City a world-class innovation center along the lines of similar regions like Cambridge, Mass., and San Francisco's Mission Bay district. And yet what sort of development that will actually entail still remains to be seen, because as Tang explains, "This is all a work in progress; the project doesn't really finish until April."

Part of what the project will almost certainly involve, however, aside from more spaces where innovation can take place, are recreational facilities. "You have to have amenities that allow creative people to be with like-minded people for extended periods of time," Tang says. "So that means retail, it means entertainment, it means after-hours places. All those things need to come together."

Tang is also quick to point out, however, that while "it's important that we have facilities, it's more important who's in those facilities, and for what reason. We need to foster better collaboration between organizations and institutions," he offers. "And that's not only to tell the story, but to build a better story as well."

Source: Stephen Tang, University City Science Center
Writer: Dan Eldridge

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Jobs the focus as Mayor Nutter announces Neighborhood Economic Development Grants

On Valentine's Day last week, Mayor Michael Nutter appeared at Esperanza College in North Philadelphia to introduce the recipients of the 2011 Neighborhood Economic Development grants. The purpose of the long-running and hugely popular program, which receives $1 million in funding from the federal Community Development Block Grant program, is to "support the completion of neighborhood economic predevelopment, planning, and development projects," according to a Philadelphia Department of Commerce press release distributed at Esperanza.

Mayor Nutter, however, described the program in significantly more passionate and straightforward terms: "When we talk about this program, it's not just about affordable housing," he offered. "It's not just about shelter for the homeless. It's not just about investing. It's also about jobs, which is all we really want to talk about. You ask me what time it is?" he continued. "It's time to help people get a job. You ask me what the weather's like? It's nice enough to go out and look for a job. Anything you ask me, we're going to talk about jobs."

And although some might argue that the Neighborhood Economic Development grants are about much more than simple job creation--at their core, they're about helping community groups foster serious economic growth--the reality is that a total of 368 permanent jobs will eventually be created as a result of the grant monies being awarded to this year's recipients.

Esperanza, in fact, was one of this year's nine grant recipients, as was the Center for Culinary Enterprises, a food business incubator which plans to break ground on March 23. Other recipients include Community Legal Services, which is constructing a four-story building; Mt. Airy USA, which is building the Mt. Airy Transit Village; and People for People (PFP), which will offer job training in a soon-to-be-renovated two-story building. Click here to read about the remaining grant recipients and their plans for future development.

Source: Esperanza College
Writer: Dan Eldridge

Do you know of a new building going up, a business expanding or being renovated, a park in the works or even a cool new house being built in the neighborhood? Please send your Development News tips here.
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