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Innovation Plaza slated to open this fall in University City

In June, the University City Science Center broke ground on an inviting new public space. The Innovation Plaza, under construction right next to International House at 37th and Chestnut, will run between Market and Chestnut Streets.

Recently, Flying Kite took a look at the Science Center’s second call for nominees for its Innovators Walk of Fame, a key piece of the plaza that will feature specially designed concrete blocks with metal plaques honoring science visionaries. The first call for nominees went out when the project was first announced in 2013; this second "class" of nominees focused on women in the sciences. According to Science Center spokesperson Jeanne Mell, this call -- which closed in June -- drew 68 suggestions. In July, a selection committee finalized a group of five honorees; they will be announced at the Center’s Nucleus 2015 event on October 15.

"We realized that just putting them on this pretty pedestrian-looking walkway wasn’t going to do them justice," says Mell says of the plan to develop the whole plaza space, which will be open to the public by this fall.

In addition to the Walk of Fame, the plaza will feature a café seating area where people can meet, collaborate, eat and work; there’ll be free public WIFI -- the Science Center hopes visitors will use it for more than just a place to have lunch. With plenty of food offerings already in the neighborhood, there aren’t any plans for a permanent café, but with the help of ex;it design firm, the spot will be very food-truck friendly.

There will also be a versatile space sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania with seating 150 to 200 people that could be used for all kinds of outdoor entertainment, from movie screenings to concerts to theatrical performances. Landscape design firm Andropogon will create attractive green elements. 

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Sources: Jeanne Mell and Monica Cawvey, the Science Center

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

A transatlantic collaboration reimagines North Philly's Lehigh Viaduct

Drexel University's new Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation has launched an ambitious cross-continental educational partnership that imagines a new future for the Lehigh Viaduct in North Philadelphia. They are also tackling a neglected power station (built in the 1920s) and a largely vacant 300,000-square-foot building that covers almost 1,000 feet of waterfront.

The Lehigh Viaduct and these nearby buildings are the perfect focus for an intensive planning project, says Harris Steinberg, executive director of the Lindy Institute and a professor of architecture and interiors at Drexel's Westphal College. The largely abandoned sites have "a lot of connections with work that’s being done in this country as well as around the world, particularly in Europe, around repurposing former industrial infrastructure," he explains.

Steinberg, formerly of the University of Pennsylvania, has a lot of experience in this area. For the last fifteen years, he has worked with groups like PennPraxis on addressing the waterfront, including 2006-2007's Civic Vision for the Central Delaware public planning process, which engaged over 4,000 people in 13 months. That project included the power station and viaduct the Lindy Institute is focusing on now.

The planning process occurred right before Mayor Michael Nutter came into office, and his administration used that work to create a master plan in partnership with the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation.

The Lehigh Viaduct is a raised embankment connector that runs into the heart of North Philadelphia, from the Port Richmond rail yards to the Girard Avenue interchange at I-95. This overgrown industrial remnant is off-limits to the public. While the Conrail-owned track -- which currently has just one active rail line left -- is not likely to see significant redevelopment right away, Steinberg still insists it’s "a longer-term possibility" to compile a publicly accessible plan for the future.

That will be done via tours, charrettes and workshops, including “Creative Transformations: Lessons from Transatlantic Cities,” a free public discussion that took place at Moore College of Art on February 26. It featured a panel of local and international experts, and was hosted by Drexel, the William Penn Foundation and the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Fifteen students and two faculty members from Germany's TU Dortmund University recently arrived to collaborate with a group of urban design students from Drexel.

"Can it become an amenity as opposed to just an element that divides Port Richmond and Kensington?" asks Steinberg. He hopes the workshop events, running in late February and early March, will give "some more ideas on potential reuse with some economic viability to it. The high-level question we’re asking is how do you repurpose these industrial assets which are not easy to transform, but could have an incredible catalytic impact on the regeneration of those neighborhoods?" 

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Harris Steinberg, Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University

 

Will Germantown's historic YWCA face demolition or redevelopment?

In January, all eyes were on the old YWCA at 5820 Germantown Avenue, bordering Vernon Park in Germantown. Despite a wealth of local affection for the building, whose use as a YWCA facility dates back to 1914, it may face demolition, and residents are anxiously asking what can be done to save it.

Despite its important place in the neighborhood's 20th century history, the building has been left to languish empty for years, damaged by vandalism and fires. The YMCA owned the building until 2006; then Germantown Settlement purchased the site, but no plans materialized. With the structure in steep decline, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA) brought the building to sheriff’s sale and acquired it in 2013.

Last fall, a request for proposals for the site drew a plan from just one interested developer: the Philly-based Mission First Housing Group, which would partner with Philly Office Retail to convert the building into 50 independent senior-living units, pending a state-administered federal tax subsidy (Mission First would retain sole ownership of the site.) But the PRA rejected the proposal last month.

"This issue is something that’s really important to people, so it brings out a lot of passions," said Germantown United CDC Board President Garlen Capita at a January 22 community meeting on the issue, held at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown.

The meeting drew a large crowd of concerned locals, and featured PRA Executive Director Brian Abernathy, Mission First Housing Group Director of Business Development Mark Deitcher, 8th District Councilwoman Cindy Bass and Philly Office Retail president Ken Weinstein as speakers.

By all counts, the condition of the building now means that it will cost more money to rehabilitate and re-use than it would to demolish and rebuild. Abernathy estimated the cost of stabilizing the structure at $3 million, and according to Deitcher, a Mission First assessment found that the 50,000-square-foot facility would cost $200 per square foot to restore.

Several speakers, including Bass and community members who took the microphone for a question-and-answer session, emphasized the importance of not rushing to take the first proposal to materialize for the site.

But Weinstein came out strongly in support of the Mission First proposal: "This project does not represent settling for what’s in front of us," he insisted.

For her part, the Councilwoman said two other developers had approached her with interest in the site after word of its possible demolition got out, but she declined to give any specifics.

GUCDC Executive Director Andy Trackman tells Flying Kite that they're still awaiting word on next steps for the old YWCA: nothing can move forward until the city’s Office of Licenses and Inspections surveys the site and makes its report.

Elliot Griffin, a spokesperson for Bass, says the councilwoman has scheduled meetings with stakeholders from City agencies about the structural soundness of the building.

So, when can the community expect the critical L&I report? Griffin can’t comment on the timing of a public announcement, but confirms that Bass expects to hear from L&I soon.

Community activist and W. Rockland Street Project leader Emaleigh Doley, who also spoke up at last month’s meeting, tells Flying Kite that the lack of discussion about the site prior to the news of its possible demolition bothered her.

"There should be conversation, but the manner in which this issue was raised exploited the threat of demolition…and takes full advantage of the neighborhood’s vulnerabilities," she says. "Even after leaving the meeting, I was left asking, what is really going on here?"

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Sources: Andy Trackman, GUCDC; Elliot Griffin, Councilwoman Cindy Bass; Emaleigh Doley, W. Rockland Street Project

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And who owns the land?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Massive Chinatown development project unites a divided community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Get your hands dirty at the Love Your Park Fall Service Day

When we think of enjoying Philadelphia's parks, we usually think of spring and summer maintenance and activities. But as Fairmount Park Conservancy park stewardship coordinator Erin Engelstad insists, it’s just as important to help "put our park spaces to bed for the winter."

The Conservancy and the Philadelphia Department of Parks & Recreation partner with city-wide volunteers twice a year for Love Your Park service days, one in the spring and one in the fall. The spring service day typically includes as many as 100 parks and 2,000 volunteers, while this year’s fall event, on Saturday, November 15, includes 75 parks so far. Engelstad expects about 1,000 volunteers to turn out across the city.

There’s a lot to do to keep our outdoor treasures looking good once winter looms. The first item of business is clearing out all those fallen leaves. Parks & Rec will be on hand with cleaned-out trash trucks ready to transport all the gathered leaves to the Philadelphia Recycling Center in Fairmount Park, where this year’s autumn color will become next year’s mulch.

If you love spring flowers, you can help plant crocus bulbs; volunteers will also pitch in to plant up to 200 new trees -- according to Engelstad, autumn is a great time to put them in the ground.

Helpers will include school groups -- kids, parents, and teachers from North Philadelphia’s Gesu School who will be working at Smith Memorial Playground.

"They’re excited to have a large group, because they want to make the biggest leaf pile in Fairmount Park," explains Engelstad.

And yes, even though it may make some extra work in the long run, the pile will be open to jumpers of all ages.  

Park organizers, who will manage the schedule and to-do lists at their individual parks, can provide gloves and tools, and no experience is necessary to pitch in. Residents are welcome to just show up, but they can give organizers a hand by signing up in advance online.

"It’s an opportunity for folks to get to know people in their neighborhood," adds Engelstad.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Erin Engelstad, Fairmount Park Conservancy

 
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