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Raising Girard: A True Community Effort Transforms Commercial Corridor

To some along the eastern end of the Girard Avenue corridor, the sound of jackhammers and bulldozers backing up to avoid oncoming trolley traffic may sound like the world's longest waking nightmare. But to Girard Coalition Executive Director Angel Coleman, this construction cacophony sounds like beautiful music. These are the sounds of progress otherwise known as the Girard Avenue Interchange, an I-95 off-ramp that will streamline a connection between Philadelphia's hottest neighborhood and its most well-tread highway.

"Obviously, this work is going to take a long time but we are really excited about the product afterwards," says Coleman. "It will add a lot more green space, more connectivity with the other side of the highway and it will become a gateway more than a barrier. For me personally, when I first moved here from New York, I used to get lost trying to get off I-95 to Girard."

Between the opening of SugarHouse Casino back in September, Bart Blatstein's PathMark and mixed-use space set to open in December and the 2012 completion of the interchange, Girard Avenue has never been so busy. These development projects have brought renewed interest to a commercial corridor many had written off as a lost cause. This week, with all eyes on the Avenue, Girard Coalition and a varied list of neighborhood partners began redesigning the Girard Avenue Strategic Plan, a document dating back--in one form or another--more than 30 years. But where the former plan was a scattered set of long-term goals, Coleman and her team hopes this new plan will focus on achievable benchmarks--public art projects, streetscape improvements, fa�ade repairs--over the next one to three years. Early action projects like new sidewalks, tree plantings and lights have already been paid for through city and state funding for sections of East Girard Avenue. Girard Coalition goes before its board in December to present the next phase, focused on extending successful development down the avenue, from 6th to 19th Streets.

"In our plan, we are focused on that middle section, where there is some commercial activity but it is a bit more lifeless," says Coleman. "You will definitely see more action there soon."

Founded in 2003, Girard Coalition has been focused on providing business services for the commercial corridor, offering workshops, convening neighborhood organizations and helping found several sustainable businesses. Now that the Coalition is shifting gears to focus on the more physical improvements, Coleman has called on neighborhood groups to give input and shape to the more creative improvements.

One such group, the Girard Business and Arts Association, has given several suggestions; including helping plan the 1st Annual Girard Fest. Starting in June, GBAA has focused on aesthetic touches like streetside banners, planters and lights. Nicole Marcote, GBAA president and co-owner of Quince Fine Foods at 209 W. Girard Avenue, has been a business owner here for four years. With the street improvements in the pipeline, Marcote is looking ahead to events like Second Thursday (a counterpoint to nearby First Friday events) and holiday shopping events. With large-scale developments coming to the neighborhood, GBAA is focusing on driving traffic to the sidewalks, hoping to draw small business development to the main commercial corridor.

"There are still a lot of abandoned storefronts on Girard Avenue and there are still a lot of buildings owned by private owners but they are not well kept," says Marcote. "We are hoping that the Avenue can be one continuous place to shop and meet and see new things. And with more life on the sidewalks, maybe that will inspire people to buy dilapidated properties and fix them up."

Last summer, SEPTA broke ground on two Broad Street Line station renovation projects at Spring Garden and Girard Avenue. Development officials are optimistic that these stations and anchors like Philadelphia Community College and St. Joes Prep will draw increased interest to the central section.

"As you can imagine, it has been hard to get resources and funding behind these projects but also organizing people to get behind work," says Coleman. "It has been a lot easier for us to get resources directed to areas like Northern Liberties, Fishtown, with all the excitement and energy surrounding those areas."

Just a short trolley ride away, another Girard Avenue commercial corridor is lending optimism to Girard Coalition's ambitions for the central section. The neighborhood known as Brewerytown once housed Philadelphia's breweries and distillers. When prohibition drove most of the brewers to the Midwest, Brewerytown began a long downward trend. When the last of the brewers pulled out of the area in 1987, the area was soon engulfed in crime and, in 1991, was deemed blighted by the city government. But in the last few years, developers have given Brewerytown new life. Grade school friends from the neighborhood, David Waxman and Jacob Roller founded MM Partners two years ago. The pair was determined to rebuild the neighborhood and began buying property in 2001. When those investments began to pay off, they started a development company and today, own commercial properties, apartment buildings, and even redesigned an old newsstand using public artists. Their latest tenants, Mugshots Caf�, had a grand opening this week.

"We were very lucky in that we had control of some major development sites that we didn't get caught short on during the down real estate market," says Waxman. "We formed MM Partners two and a half years ago to really drive the commercial corridor on Girard Avenue and also to lay the groundwork for some of the larger projects we had in redevelopment, which we held up when the market turned."
With a coffee shop in place, a spa and an art gallery under construction and a vocal and passionate community, MM Partners is backing Brewerytown in a big way. And Girard Coalition hopes its plan will pave the way for traffic to the rehabbed Brewerytown corridor.

"I think Brewerytown is on its way to being the next hot neighborhood," says Coleman. "When Westrum Development and Penrose Properties came in, it helped confirm in people's minds that Brewerytown was for real. The development that MM Partners has done has showed a commitment to the commercial corridor, renting to strong, successful businesses that have really taken Brewerytown to the next level."

In February, Girard's most identifiable feature--the Route 15 trolley--returns to its track following the construction of a turnaround that will allow service during construction of the I-95 interchange. The jackhammers may be gone, but the unmistakable whirr of the trolley will keep singing the praises of Philadelphia's next commercial district. Take a ride sometime soon and see what you have been missing.

JOHN STEELE is the News Editor for Flying Kite and is a freelance writer, blogger and communication consultant in Philadelphia. Please send feedback here.


Nicole Marcote at her Girard Ave. shop, Quince Fine Foods

Outdoor seating at Quince

Marcote prepares a gourmet sandwich for a lunch customer

Specialty items for sale at Quince

(L to R) Aaron Smith, David Waxman and Jake Roller of MM Partners

Property on Girard Ave. rehabbed and sold by MM

The New Mugshots Cafe on Girard Ave.

Another construction project recently sold by MM

Dave Waxman

Jake Roller

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