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'Death of a Sidewalk': Northern Liberties' urban design problem on 2nd St. at Family Dollar

Poor urban design choices happen all the time.  When it comes to new development, what might sound like common sense (creating active, vibrant, storefronts along commercial corridors and attractive streetscapes along residential ones) too often does not come to fruition.  Just ask residents of Northern Liberties, a neighborhood known for its high profile, successful development schemes (i.e. Tower Investments' the Piazza at Schmidt’s) but increasingly for its unfortunate urban design outcomes that threaten neighborhood identity. 

There are few things that irk planners and urban designers more than woefully implemented urban designs, no matter where they occur.  In Northern Liberties, none are more obvious than the Family Dollar store that recently opened underneath the Superfresh at 2nd and Girard in another one of Tower’s large redevelopment projects. 

If you take a walk down 2nd Street starting at Girard Avenue, the gateway to Northern Liberties, you’ll quickly come across a new, not-so-shiny, Family Dollar store.  If you’re looking for a place to enter the discount chain, you’re in the wrong place.  Along its unforgiving frontage that seems to stretch clear down to Spring Garden Street, you’ll instead see signs directing you to the interior parking garage entrance.  In the place of front doors, you’ll notice the store’s shelving units turning their back to the 2nd Street public realm.  In a classic case of common sense being overlooked, Family Dollar made their store’s front the back and only provided access via the parking garage.  In doing so, they sowed the seeds of the sidewalks death, taking with it a coherent pedestrian realm along this portion of 2nd Street.

Maintaining a thriving and cohesive pedestrian realm is particularly important along 2nd Street, the neighborhood’s commercial corridor that in many ways, with its bars, restaurants, bodegas and shops, has come to symbolize the neighborhood’s resurgence and identity.  Plus, the current Northern Liberties Neighborhood Plan places a high priority on “re-establishing 2nd Street as the heart of Northern Liberties, reflective of local character and equipped to meet neighborhood needs.” 

You would think the neighborhood would look to build off this appeal in every way possible, ensuring new development meets the standards already set in place by the traditional Main Street feel of 2nd Street.  But thanks to a host of players and stakeholders, including Family Dollar, Tower Investments and the Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association (NLNA) these principles are clearly not being promoted to the degree they ought to be.

According to Matthew Emerson, the Urban Design Committee Chair for NLNA, the first to blame are the store owners and developers.  “The decision to face the garage only was a Family Dollar decision and the responsibility of the retailer and Tower Investments,” explains Emerson. 

This is true, but ultimately the neighborhood sets the vision and steers the course for its future.  A place’s built environment is a reflection of its value system and what residents see as important.  This holds true in any neighborhood or city across the country.  With this in mind, NLNA, the vision setter for the neighborhood, also shares some blame for Family Dollar’s misstep, lacking foresight and not using the tools available to adequately prevent this urban design failure from occuring.  

In hindsight, Emerson believes there is more NLNA could have done, notably adding provisos to the original zoning motion to force retailers to face the street, although he is unsure if Tower would have been on board.  Considering this experience a lesson learned, Emerson hopes to prevent this problem from occuring in the future.    

Moving forward, NLNA does plan to reach out to Family Dollar to remediate the situation.  But thinking beyond immediate fixes and attempting to understand how things like this can be avoided; the neighborhood should adopt full-blown urban design guidelines that will set a comprehensive vision and provide a road map for what new development will look like in Northern Liberties.  Urban design guidelines are just that - recommendations that developers have no legal obligation to follow.  But considering how much development is expected to happen in the foreseeable future, it isn’t farfetched to assume developers will play nice and go along with the guidelines so long as they have a chance to grab a piece of the area’s increasingly pricey real estate pie. 

Source: Matthew Emerson, Northern Liberties Neighborhood Association, Urban Design Committee Chair
Writer: Greg Meckstroth
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