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New funds move Germantown closer to creating a master plan

Germantown United CDC (GUCDC) is one step closer to the comprehensive neighborhood plan it’s been eyeing for years thanks to a new $25,000 civic engagement grant from the Pennsylvania Humanities Council.

The one-year grant will be split between GUCDC and a local theater-based nonprofit known as Just Act, which uses trained actor-facilitators (in teams of both youths and adults) to help spark community dialogues.

According to the two groups, the dollars will help them "map both the formal and informal networks currently contributing to community improvement efforts in Germantown." The work supported by the grant will be a "community network analysis" that ensures all of the neighborhood’s voices are "well-represented and prepared for their role as stakeholder in the larger effort to revitalize greater Germantown and the neighborhood’s shopping district and commercial sector."

"One thing we’d like to do is have a lot of these groups that may not be talking to each other right now start talking to each other," explains GUDCD Executive Director Andy Trackman.

Just Act Executive Director Lisa Jo Epstein -- who is partnering with GUCDC Corridor Manager Emaleigh Doley to spearhead the civic engagement project -- is on the same page as Trackman. The more people who participate the better, she says. "Then, when a developer comes in, there’s already going to be a new informal network that can say, 'If you’re coming in, you have to also respond to us. You have to do something for us, not for people from the outside.'"

"What I would like for this grant to do…[is] show that Germantown United is really committed to talking to all the voices in Germantown, especially as it relates to our planning of the neighborhood," adds Trackman. "I also would like to see this as a building block, as an attention-getter to get more resources into the neighborhood for this planning process."

Doley and Epstein are currently developing a series of community storytelling events; dates and locations TBA.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Sources: Andy Trackman, Germantown United CDC; Lisa Jo Epstein, Just Act

Working to curb illegal dumping on Philly streets

On January 20, Keep Philadelphia Beautiful (KPB) continued its push to produce the city’s first unified front on the issue of litter with a convening of officials and community stakeholders at the Municipal Services Building’s 16th floor Innovation Lab.  

Attendees were from groups as diverse as the Streets Department, the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD), the Tookany Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership, the Aramingo Business Association, the People's Emergency Center, the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia, the North Fifth Street Revitalization Project, the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC), the Schuylkill Navy of Philadelphia and the South of South Neighborhood Association.

"How do we do this as a city, and how do the smaller groups work together?" asked Marian Horowitz, an environmental engineer at PWD.

Alan Robinson of the Schuylkill Navy said that when it comes to the city environment, he wishes people would get as excited about reducing and eliminating litter as they are about pop-up parks, pools and gardens.

One of four specialized break-out sessions focused specifically on the problem of illegal dumping. PCDC Deputy Director Rachel Mak led the discussion.

While litter in the streets, sidewalks and waterways is a problem in Philly, illegal dumping is a problem on a larger and much more noticeable scale. People unwilling to dispose of their household or construction trash properly leave bags and piles on public corners or strewn around City trash cans.

Mak highlighted a few sites in the Chinatown neighborhood that research has pinpointed as hot-spots for illegal dumping, including the corners at 10th and Race Streets, 10th and Cherry Streets, and 11th and Wood Streets.

One reason tracking the dumping sites is important, Mak said, is that the installation of cameras can capture illegal dumpers in the act. Printouts of the images can also be distributed throughout the neighborhood.

PCDC also partners with the Streets Department’s Streets and Walkways Education and Enforcement Program (SWEEP) to check illegally dumped material for identifying information that can be used to track down and fine the perpetrators.

Stopping illegal dumping takes a lot of groundwork, persistence, education, and "getting your hands dirty," explains Mak.

"People get used to seeing trash, so they let it go when it happens," adds Horowitz. "People think they aren’t doing anything wrong or no-one will notice.

Later, we’ll take a look at how the new KPB consortium is hoping to mobilize business owners on the issue.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Sources: Rachel Mak, PCDC; and KPB litter convening participants

Almost 150 new apartments and fresh retail spaces proposed for Callowhill complex

Chinatown North/Callowhill residents are considering a significant new mixed-use development in the neighborhood. Last week, architects from the Chadds Ford-based T.C. Lei Architect & Associates met with representatives of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC), the 5th Republican Ward and the Callowhill Neighborhood Association to introduce their plans and take questions.

The design features four independent buildings: two seven-story apartments towers and two five-story buildings with apartments above and a total of 12 new commercial spaces fronting Callowhill on the first floor. Financing is still being worked out.

PCDC hosted the Civic Design Review, which was required by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission in light of the complex's large footprint (173,913 square feet in four buildings) and high number of proposed residential units. The meeting drew a variety of community stakeholders. Architects Michelle Kleschick and Vernon Lei of T.C. Lei joined general contractor Alex Chau in presenting plans for the facility and its construction; the property owner/developer is Wing Lee Investment, L.P.  

The proposed project will sit on a rectangular parcel of what is now a mix of warehouses and industrial space, a lumberyard and vacant lots at 900-934 Callowhill Street. The area is bounded by Carlton Street, N. 9th Street, Callowhill and Ridge Avenue, and existing structures would be razed.

All residential units (146 in total) would be market-rate two-bedroom rentals of about 880 square feet. An open-air cruciform courtyard and central elevator/stairwell tower would complete the interior of the site, which is being designed with an estimated $20 million total budget. The development would include about 14,000 square feet of commercial space and over 135,000 square feet of residential space.

The green-roofed complex would hold 90 percent of its own stormwater with the help of a filtering and retention matrix. According to Lei, the commercial storefronts are slated to be "mom and pop neighborhood-size spaces" of about 1,000 square feet, with the option for open construction that would allow stores, service providers or restaurants of up to 2,000 square feet.

Chau explained that the steel-and-concrete construction would be consistent with the look of other modern residential towers in the city, while Lei touted the potential for a "beautiful" new commercial space along Callowhill boasting an "Asian motif" on the façade.

Meeting attendees had a variety of questions for the presenters, including parking options (ample spaces are slated for a below-ground garage), the potential disruptions of construction, specifics of the façades, trash removal and target tenants.

An official City Civic Design Review hearing is pending, date TBA. If the proposal moves forward, Chau hopes to break ground in spring 2016, with total time to completion of three to four years.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Sources: T.C. Lei & Associates and partners


Follow all our work #OnTheGroundPhilly via twitter (@flyingkitemedia) and Instagram (@flyingkite_ontheground).

On the Ground is made possible by the Knight Foundation, an organization that supports transformational ideas, promotes quality journalism, advances media innovation, engages communities and fosters the arts. The foundation believes that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit knightfoundation.org.

 

An extra year of fundraising has Chinatown's Eastern Tower poised for construction

About a year ago, we looked in on Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation’s (PCDC) planned Eastern Tower, a 20-story mixed-use residential/retail/community services building at the northwest corner of 10th and Vine Streets. (Yup, that's in the heart of our next On the Ground neighborhood.) This was just after the organization had nabbed a $3.7 million Pennsylvania Economic Initiative grant, which PCDC Capacity and Projects Manager Sarah Yeung says helped to kick off some excellent financial and community momentum for the development.

"We had initially thought that we wanted to break ground in the beginning of [2015], but we actually spent the bulk of this year strengthening our position financially," explains Yeung. The last several months have brought significant contributions from PECO and Comcast, as major public and private funders took notice of the project’s traction.

After funding from the William Penn Foundation allowed the nonprofit PCDC to set up a regional center for project investors, the foundation gave an additional grant of $700,000 towards outfitting the community center portion of the building, which brought foundation gifts to a total of $900,000 in just the last quarter. The Philadelphia Suns -- who will be the primary users of the Eastern Tower community center -- raised $15,000 at their latest banquet. The CDC also received a $500,000 grant from the Commerce Department late last year.

All in all, the projected budget for the new center now stands at $77 million.

Eastern Tower has been a long time coming. The vision for the massive new Vine Street hub got started in 2004. Fundraising started in earnest in 2011. The complex (from the architects at Studio Agoos Lovera) aims to house the city’s most diverse range of community offerings under one roof: residential units, a daycare center, a community center, a pharmacy, a restaurant, a doctor’s office and more.

"From an outsider’s perspective, it looks like we threw the kitchen sink in, but this is a very strategic project for us," says Yeung of targeting much-needed services in the area. "It’s about equitable development in Chinatown North/Callowhill," a neighborhood with plenty of private development bumping up against ongoing issues of poverty, blight and lack of services for the local immigrant community.

Yeung says final closing on all the project’s financing will be accomplished by next month, and the contract for construction manager Hunter Roberts is ready to go. Funding is at 100 percent and construction should commence early next year.

"We’re as ready as can be," she enthuses. "We can’t be more ready. It’s a really exciting time for us. It’s been a long process and a huge team effort...on a city level, it’s going to be quite a significant project."

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Sarah Leung, Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation

Follow all our work #OnTheGroundPhilly via twitter (@flyingkitemedia) and Instagram (@flyingkite_ontheground).


On the Ground is made possible by the Knight Foundation, an organization that supports transformational ideas, promotes quality journalism, advances media innovation, engages communities and fosters the arts. The foundation believes that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit knightfoundation.org.
 

An ambitious Block Build helps eight homeowners in a single day

A day-long project to repair and weatherproof eight homes on one block of North Philly’s Eastern North neighborhood might seem simple, but the benefits reach deep and wide.

Rebuilding Together Philadelphia (RTP), the organizer of October 16's Block Build, is one of 150 local independent affiliates of a national program. According to Executive Director Stefanie Seldin, RTP staffers and volunteers -- who have helped to rehabilitate 1,369 homes since the group's 1988 creation by Wharton grad students -- are based out of an office in Frankford but work all over the city.

RTP usually does a few Block Builds per year, often in West Philly.

"We rely on community-based groups to say, ‘This is the block that really could use some TLC,'" says Seldin. "They go and recruit the homeowners for us, too."

The latest build relied on a partnership with Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha, a local community development corporation.

About 100 volunteers pitched in for the October 16 event, including a mix of professional trade and corporate volunteers, and students from nearby schools with vocational programs such as A. Philip Randolph Career & Technical High School and Thomas Alva Edison High School and John C. Fariera Skills Center. Workers also included students from Project WOW, an organization that offers construction training to young adults without high school diplomas.

The homeowners were mostly elderly, low-income, longtime residents feeling the squeeze of property values that have doubled since 2010. Repairs included drywall and plaster repair, the installation of new vinyl flooring and front door locksets, cleaning, HVAC maintenance, caulking, painting and window replacement to better insulate homes and reduce energy costs.

Seldin appreciates the chance to lower utility bills for Block Build homeowners, many of whom "have so much counting on their very limited income. Our homeowners are often forced to choose between repairing their homes, medical treatment or food."

According to RTP, older adults make up almost 18 percent of the city’s population -- the largest percentage of older adults in America’s 10 largest cities -- and one in five of these elderly Philadelphians live in poverty. Combine that with the fact that 90 percent of Philly’s homes were built before 1980, and the need for work like this is clear.

In addition to the cosmetic and structural upgrades, RTP works with a dedicated occupational therapist who evaluates the' homes and recommends improvements for health and safety: things like grab bars, proper lighting, level flooring and extensions for light-bulb switches (so homeowners don’t have to climb stools).

But it’s not just about the safety and comfort of individuals. As housing values have risen in the last few years, the percentage of homeowners in Philly has dropped from over 59 percent in 2000 to 51 percent.

RTP's work, especially in the 19122 zip code of North Philly where developers are circling on the outskirts of Temple University, "is helping to stop that decline in homeownership," adds Seldin. "[We help] longterm lower-income homeowners stay in a neighborhood where more and more of those homeowners are forced out."

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Stefanie Seldin, Rebuilding Together Philadelphia   

 

DesignPhiladelphia spotlights North Chinatown's Pearl Street Passage

Since last spring, the Philadelphia Center for Architecture has been working with its partners in Chinatown North and Callowhill on a special four-day public event spotlighting the possibilities of neglected alleyways. Part of the DesignPhiladelphia festival (October 8-16), Pearl Street Passage -- a pop-up exhibition located along the 1100 block of Pearl Street -- is one chapter of a bigger story. The Pearl Street Project, with partners including the Center for Architecture, Asian Arts Initiative and Friends of the Rail Park, has long-term plans to develop and revitalize this piece of the city.

On Saturday, October 10, Pearl Street Project will host its third annual block party. According to Rebecca Johnson, president of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Philadelphia (which has its headquarters at the Center for Architecture), the party was what originally gave DesignPhiladelphia organizers the idea of spotlighting Pearl Street. The often overlooked alley runs behind Asian Arts Initiative’s building and extends for four blocks through Chinatown North and Callowhill. The buildings and organizations around it include luxury lofts, social service agencies, churches, schools, a homeless shelter and more. (The neighborhood will also be the second home for this year's On the Ground program.)

"It’s all about creative placemaking," explains Johnson. "How can they use it? We partnered because we wanted to use the slightly broader spotlight of DesignPhiladelphia to focus on what’s happening there as well as connect it with Friends of the Rail Park."

The all-ages block party will feature tours of Rail Park: a guided walk from the Center for Architecture through North Chinatown spotlighting Pearl Street Project’s long-term plans, and a chance to visit the ten installations that are coming to life inside Pearl Street Passage, going through the tunnel created by the intersection of the Reading Viaduct (itself the site of major impending upgrades through Reimagining the Civic Commons).

The ten teams have been working on plans for their diverse exhibits since last spring. The works include "Savage Salvage," which turns mixing bowls rescued from the TastyKake Factory into a gateway of planters, along with many other interactive and interdisciplinary displays.

The exhibition is open to the public from 10 a.m. - 10 p.m. October 8 - 10, and 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. on Sunday, October 11. The first three evenings will feature live music and dance performances, and on Sunday a drumline will close out the exhibition.

Though it’s only four days, there’s a bigger vision in place. Pearl Street Passage, funded through an ArtPlace America grant to Asian Arts Initiative, was the perfect opportunity to "talk about how we demonstrate the power of design to people, and one of the ways we do that is with these public festivals that are outside and not just in studios," explains Johnson. It’s a chance to expose people who might not look twice at a neglected little city passage -- which Pearl Street Passage designers cleared of trash, overgrown vegetation and dirt piles -- and get them to "think about how to use an alley, and it not be a gross place to be, but a beautiful, cool place to be."

Johnson hopes DesignPhiladelphia can keep participating in this kind of project in years to come.

"We want to have something public like this every year," she enthuses. "It’s engaged us in a way that we haven’t been before."

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Rebecca Johnson, AIA Philadelphia and the Center for Architecture

 

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

Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse activates long-vacant Kensington storefront

Temple University alum Ariell Johnson first started to imagine opening her dream business when the independent coffee shop across from her favorite comic book store closed down. That was over a decade ago, before she graduated in 2005 with a degree in accounting.

As a self-described "geeky" woman of color who loves comics, Johnson says she’s a rare breed. She got serious about opening Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse, her coffee shop/comic book store/community arts hub, in the last few years. She looked in a few different neighborhoods for the perfect spot, including Lancaster Avenue in West Philly and South Philly’s Point Breeze, before finding her 3,000-foot space at the corner of Frankford Avenue and Huntingdon Street.

Frankford's burgeoning arts corridor and mixed neighborhood demographic -- families, single young professionals, recent college grads, artists -- convinced Johnson it was the right place for Amalgam. And among a lot of "fun quirky little shops," tattoo parlors and galleries on the avenue, there still aren't any comic book stores.

"For what I’m doing, I thought it would be a great fit here," she explains.

Amalgam’s future home is a mixed-use building with apartments attached to a commercial space. Johnson says the latter has been standing empty for over ten years. Its history is unclear, but some of the leftover equipment they’ve found, along with an old painting abandoned there, hint that it had another life as an Italian restaurant. 

"We’re in the process of getting renovations done," notes Johnson. "The space is not nearly finished."

To that end, she’s running a crowdfunding campaign through March 3 with a basic goal of raising $5,000 and a dream goal of $30,000, which will help cover renovation of the plumbing, electrical and HVAC systems, as well as installing Amalgam’s coffee bar and kitchen. (If Amalgam can meet that crucial $5,000 goal, it’ll be guaranteed to receive those funds, plus any money raised beyond that.) 

Ultimately, Johnson, a Maryland native who now lives just one street away from her shop, will draw on a range of professional experience to make Amalgam a reality: her business and accounting know-how, a history in retail, and even experience as a barista and self-taught chef. The space will be a haven for comic-book lovers and the wider community, with places for browsing, sipping and snacking as well as conversation, book signings, film screenings and other events.

Johnson will carry industry staples like X-Men and The Flash, but is particularly dedicated to showcasing comics featuring women and people of color after years of being an ardent fan, but rarely seeing anyone who looked like her in the pages she loved.

"Not seeing yourself reflected in different forms of media is damaging," she explains, especially for children. "I want to actively fight against that."

Because of the variables of construction, Johnson says it’s too soon to know an exact date for Amalgam’s grand opening, but she hopes to have it up and running as soon as late spring.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Ariell Johnson, Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse

 

Mighty Writers poised to open a new Italian Market space

Last year, when Flying Kite checked in with Philly’s Mighty Writers, a largely volunteer-powered group helmed by director Tim Whitaker, it had just nabbed a $75,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, which it planned to put toward opening a brand-new location in the heart of the Italian Market. That space will house a bilingual program called El Futuro.

Mighty Writers, now in its fifth year of serving youth ages 7 to 17, opened its original space at 15th and Christian Streets, and then a second one at 39th and Lancaster Avenue. Its programming includes mentoring, homework help, after-school sessions, writing classes and SAT prep.

According to Whitaker, former editor of Philadelphia Weekly, Mighty Writers launched a bilingual roster specifically geared toward Philly’s Mexican-American community about two years ago. Attendance at the 15th and Christian location has been enthusiastic and now Mighty Writers is on the cusp of opening a new space in the Italian Market, to better serve participants right in their own neighborhood.

Mighty Writers is hoping to close this week on a building two blocks north of Washington Avenue on 9th Street. The one-story space boasts about 2,500 square feet, with plenty of room for a variety of programming and new offices. After a few renovations, the group hopes to welcome youngsters there as soon as late February.

"There will be workshops for all, though focusing mostly on the Mexican community," says Whitaker. Workshop leaders will teach in both Spanish and English. Currently, Mighty Writers has five full-time employees, two part-timers and dozens of volunteers.

There will also be a daily after-school academy from 3 - 6 p.m., evening writing workshops and additional programming on the weekends.

Whitaker is particularly excited about the new location, flanked by fruit stands, a fish market and racially diverse businesses.   

"It’s really right in the middle of everything, which adds a lot for the kids to write about, a lot for them to see," he says. "It just feels like it’s the right place."

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Tim Whitaker, Mighty Writers

Massive Chinatown development project unites a divided community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Greensgrow Farms launches a retail gardening center in West Philly

The experimental urban agriculture organization Greensgrow Farms has been operating for nearly two decades in South Kensington where it not only runs a CSA program and a community kitchen, but also educates Philadelphians about sustainable living, and attempts to convince other communities to replicate aspects of its urban farming model.  
 
A little over a week ago, West Philadelphia became an extended member of the Greensgrow family when a gardening center, Greensgrow West, opened on the 4900 block of Baltimore Avenue at the former site of the Elena's Soul jazz club.  
 
The gardening center will remain at the Baltimore Avenue site for at least two years. They will sell plants and fruit trees, and eventually offer workshops similar to those held at the Kensington location. Greensgrow West will also be home to a farmer's market accepting SNAP and WIC Farmers' Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) benefits.
 
According to Greensgrow's Ryan Kuck, himself a 15-year West Philly resident, the organization saw the neighborhood "as really fertile ground," and an ideal location to further explore its mission of creating livable communities on underutilized urban land.

"We know we have a lot of support [in West Philly], and we know there's a market for greening," says Kuck, who adds that Greensgrow's mobile markets, which offer fresh food to underserved communities, are often based in West Philly. "It's also just a really interesting place for us to explore what Greengrow's future model might look like."
 
It's currently unclear what will happen to the site when Greensgrow's lease ends in April 2016.
 
Source:  Ryan Kuck, Greensgrow Farms
Writer: Dan Eldridge

 
Mobile Market photos by Jennifer Britton
Remaining photos by Bryn Ashburn

A commercial corridor manager brings signs of life to 52nd Street in West Philly

The intersection of 52nd and Market streets in West Philly has struggled for decades, but prior to SEPTA's reconstruction of the Market-Frankford Line, which wrecked economic havoc on the area, the 52nd Street retail corridor was better known as West Philly's Main Street -- a proud city-within-the-city where small businesses thrived.  
 
The Enterprise Center Community Development Corporation (TEC-CDC) has been working for five years to bring that vitality back. And thanks to a grant provided by the Philadelphia Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), they recently hired the street's first-ever commercial corridor manager, Akeem Dixon, whose job description involves returning the retail corridor to its former glory.
 
That's a tall order, to be sure, but according to Dana Hanchin of the Philadelphia LISC office, initiatives are already moving forward.
 
At a recent stakeholders meeting, TEC-CDC revealed some of the key elements of its commercial corridor work plan. It includes beautification efforts such as pop-up gardens on vacant lots, and the launch of both a corridor-specific newsletter and a business directory. A biweekly radio program covering the corridor is now airing on West Philly's community radio station, WPEB 88.1 FM, and a branding campaign is also in the works.
 
Meanwhile, Dixon continues to act as an intermediary between business owners and residents in the area -- something of an impartial ombudsman, whose top priority involves "getting everyone at the same table, and talking," as LISC Philadelphia's James Crowder puts it.
 
"I can't say that wasn't happening before," says Crowder. "But I can say it's happening in a way now that's way more efficient and productive."
 
Source:  Dana Hanchin, LISC Philadelphia
Writer: Dan Eldridge

 
Photos by Samuel Dolgin-Gardner 

Ambitious Pearl Street renovation planned in Chinatown North

In 2008, after two years of transition and multiple moves to make way for the Convention Center expansion, the Asian Arts Initiative moved into their current home at 1219 Vine Street. Now, nearly five years later, AAI is still looking for ways to make their presence known in "Chinatown North" (an area also referred to as the Loft District, Callowhill or Eraserhood).
 
AAI’s recent attempts to solidify the neighborhood's identity are rather ambitious -- the community-based arts center is aiming to revitalize four blocks of Pearl Street, an alleyway that runs from Broad to 10th just north of Vine Street. The goal is to turn the street into a public space, outdoor gallery and gathering spot, bringing together the area's diverse communities.
 
Currently in the early planning stages, the Pearl Street project has been on AAI's radar for a number of years. "Since we moved into this space we’ve been staring at Pearl Street outside our windows," says AAI Executive Director Gayle Isa. "The alleyway is a place you don't want to be right now. It has a reputation as dark and dangerous."
 
Until recently, the project was little more than an idea. "We were actually approached by a funder who was interested in partnering with us on one of our pet projects," says Isa. "We pitched the Pearl Street renovation and they were on board."
 
AAI is hiring Oakland-based landscape architect and artist Walter Hood -- he was in town recently collecting feedback from stakeholders along the alley. Hood will be back in Philadelphia this summer to conduct further research. Final designs are expected in the fall.
 
That group of stakeholders is exceptionally diverse: there's the homeless shelter Sunday Breakfast Mission, folks from the Philly Streets and Planning Departments, the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (the group behind the upcoming Eastern Tower Community Center) and Post Brothers, the developers behind upcoming luxury condos along the alleyway.

"The constituents really reflect the diversity of the neighborhood," says Isa. "The alleyway is a chance to tie them together.... Everyone we've met with has had an overwhelming sense of enthusiasm. There is a lot more openness to working together than I would have expected."
 
Few details have been worked out, but the overall vision involves improved public space, public art, lighting improvements and multi-sensory programmed activities meant to enliven the street. Green features will also be included, with the hope of eventually connecting Pearl Street to the long-envisioned Reading Viaduct project.
 
Source: Gayle Isa, Executive Director, Asian Arts Initiative
WriterGreg Meckstroth

Gay-friendly affordable housing set to break ground in Center City

When it comes to Gay Philadelphia, there’s a lot to be proud of.  After all, the city features one of the country’s most recognizable, tightly knit ‘Gayborhoods’ in Center City, acting as the focal point of GLBT civic life for the region.  Building off this identity, City, State and gay leaders will later this week officially break ground on the William Way residences, a one of a kind, $20 million gay-friendly senior affordable housing project on 13th Street, smack dab in the middle of the Gayborhood.        

“There is only one other type of facility like this in the nation. That’s in L.A.,” explains Mark Segal, who is the publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News and has spearheaded the project thus far.  He says that what makes the William Way residences so unique because of how it has been funded.  “It’s the first effort to use traditional ways to finance and build an affordable GLBT-friendly housing project.” 

By 'traditional,' Segel means 'public' - the project is being financed with a multitude of city, state and federal funds.  One of the funding sources, the Dr. Manus Hirschfeld Fund, is a GLBT advocacy group that was formed in 2004 to support the gay community.  They received an $11 million grant from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency earlier this year.  This money, combined with $8 million in already allocated government grants, allowed the project to move forward to where it is today.    
 
The new 6-story structure will feature 56 one-bedroom units, a 5,000-square-foot enclosed courtyard, and multipurpose spaces that residents and the community can use. Plans also include roughly 2,000 square feet of retail space that will front 13th Street. 

Living in the residences will be geared towards seniors in the gay community so they have a place to comfortably live without possible stresses of being discriminated against in other public housing.  Even though affordable housing laws dictate that eligibility to live in public housing based on sexual preference is illegal, the building is able to market itself as ‘gay friendly’ to draw special interest from GLBT seniors.  But the facility will be open to anyone that is at least 62 years old and earns less than 60 percent of the Philadelphia median income. 

Due to Hurricane Sandy pushing construction timetables back (the original groundbreaking was set for Oct. 29th), the official groundbreaking is now set for later this week on Friday, Nov. 9 at 11 a.m. at 249 S. 13th Street.  Mayor Nutter will be in attendance and will unveil the official name of the new building.  He will be joined by former Governor Ed Rendell, numerous city and state officials as well as a number of high profile GLBT civil rights pioneers.  Segal believes the project will take up to 15 months to complete and should be ready for occupation in early 2014.        

Source: Mark Segal, Philadelphia Gay News 
WriterGreg Meckstroth

Brewerytown, Fairmount, Francisville, Strawberry Mansion band together for Night Out

Acts of solidarity and partnership took the form of loud beating drums last night in Francisville as local school marching bands led groups of community members and civic leaders on a walk through city streets for Lower North/Central North Philadelphia’s National Night Out Stroll.

In its 29th year of existence, the National Night Out campaign involves citizens, law enforcement officials, civic groups, and other stakeholders from over 15,000 communities in all 50 states who band together and heighten crime and drug prevention awareness, as well as generate support for, and participate in, local anti-crime programs.  In Philly’s Francisville, Fairmount, Strawberry Mansion, and Greater Brewerytown neighborhoods, neighbors and partners showed their solidarity by leaving their porch lights on and strolling the streets together, beginning at the Arts Garage in Francisville and ending at Mander Recreation Center in Strawberry Mansion. 

But this year, Philly’s stroll brings an extra oomph of significance, showcasing the area's ability to work together for common goals. The following organizations joined forces for Night Out: Francisville Neighborhood Development Corporation, Fairmount Communty Development Corporation, Greater Brewerytown Community Development Corporation, Strawberry Mansion Neighborhood Action Center, Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation, West Girard Community Council, Project H.O.M.E., and the Arts Garage.

According to Naomi Robertson with the Fairmount Community Development Corporation, this collaboration is what sets their event apart from similar events across the city and nationwide. 

“The fact that we were able to get so many community organizations together makes our event very unique.  All of the organizations serve as community beacons, so it was extremely important to have them involved, as they would be the ones to garner support from their respective communities.”  

Event organizers believe the collaboration between neighborhoods will go a long way towards many positive outcomes, including making residents feel safer and more connected to their neighbors.  “While Philadelphia is called ‘the city of neighborhoods’ there are times when those distinctions can make it seem like every neighborhood is an island of its own,” says Robertson, “and we wanted to show that that's not the case.  It’s a way for us all to celebrate together, to walk with each other, have our children talk to each other, and break down some of the barriers we've placed up.” 

For Lower North/Central North Philadelphia, crime prevention and awareness won't stop here.  Robertson and other civic leaders hope the collaboration continues at unprecedented levels, starting with assigning responsibility and disseminating information among residents.  “A big piece of National Night Out is developing and supporting Block Watch and Block Captain initiatives, and we believe empowering block captains is the most effective way to engage the rest of the community.”    

Writer: Greg Meckstroth
Source: Naomi Robertson, Fairmount Community Development Corporation
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