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A facelift could be in the works for Queen Village's historic Fabric Row

Michael Harris has been executive director of the South Street Headhouse District -- the city's second-oldest business improvement district -- for two years now. One of the first things that struck him about the historic stretch of South Fourth Street known as Fabric Row -- which runs between South and Catherine Streets -- was the dated and run-down feel of the strip.

"There are certain basic streetscape elements that are lacking down there," says Harris. "Like trash cans, pedestrian lighting, and places to sit."
Harris was also struck by the fact that many of the new businesses and contemporary boutiques moving into the area are investing in their own properties. Meanwhile, the public elements of Fabric Row, he says, "don't really reflect all the good things that are going on."

And so, along with the Community Design Collaborative, Headhouse District put together a conceptual design for Fabric Row that includes streetscape improvements -- park benches, planters and pedestrian-level lighting, for example. The plan also calls for building façade renovations, an aspect of the project Harris hopes to have funded via the Department of Commerce's Storefront Improvement Program.   
Because construction funds for the proposed improvements haven't yet been raised, there's no official timeline for the plan. At the moment, Headhouse District is still rolling it out to the street's stakeholders and attempting to gauge interest.

"There's a tremendous energy going on along Fourth Street right now," says Harris, adding that Fabric Row today has an amazing mix of businesses both brand-new and generations old. "What we're trying to do is to draw that identity out, and make it more apparent."

Source: Michael Harris, South Street Headhouse District
Writer: Dan Eldridge

Details for second Comcast tower revealed; plus, Blatstein buys waterfront lot

Philadelphia, like all cities, is in a constant state of evolution. This moment, in particular, feels charged with change -- fins, limbs, eyes are spouting all over the place.

The Philadelphia City Planning Commission has revealed details about the buzzed-about Comcast Innovation & Technology Center, the corporation's second skyline-altering tower. Curbed Philly covered the annoucement, and compiled this list of essential facts:

- 59 floors, 1,121 ft
- 1,321,921 square feet of office space
- 242,680 square feet of hotel space (222 rooms over 12 floors)
- 3,483 square feet of retail space
- LEED Gold or Platinum certification (anticipated)
- 126-foot glass blade at top
- Concourse connection to Comcast Center and Suburban Station
- 47 total bike racks on Arch Street/Cuthbert Street
- Ground floor bike shower/changing room
- 21 total outdoor benches
- 20 percent water use reduction
- 3-story office skygardens
- 70 underground parking spaces
- Open to the public from at least 8 a.m. - 9 p.m. daily

In another exciting development, 1 percent of the total construction costs will be spent on art in public spaces. Click here for a review of the entire project.

As all this was breaking, another big deal went down. Bart Blatstein -- who is already working on a transformative project at Broad and Washington -- has purchased a large lot on the Delaware Waterfront, between Tasker and Reed Streets. In a funny narrative twist, Blatstein actually owned the property 21 years ago, before selling it to Foxwoods as a potential casino site. That plan obviously never came to fruition. From the Philadelphia Inquirer:

The Foxwoods property in South Philadelphia was once the site of a sugar refinery. As large as a city block, the property was assembled by Blatstein in 1993. At the time, he thought he would develop a big-box shopping center.

The deal fell through, but something better came along: gambling.

In 1993, influential politicians were beginning to advocate for riverboat gambling. Blatstein rode a wave of casino speculation. Operators from Las Vegas and Atlantic City were lining up outside Blatstein's door, angling for his land.

A year after spending $8.5 million to assemble the site, Blatstein flipped it for more than $64 million to a company that became Caesars Entertainment.

The profit from that transaction gave Blatstein the financial firepower to become a major developer in the city. His signature development, which Tower Investments started in 2000, was the Piazza at Schmidts rental apartments in Northern Liberties.

Alan Greenberger, deputy mayor for economic development, speculates that the land will be developed into a mix of residential and retail; Blatstein is remaining tight-lipped for the moment.

In a big potential boon for riverfront improvement efforts, the deal will transfer a 100-foot-wide strip of land along the river's edge to the Natural Lands Trust, a conservation organization, enabling the continued progress of the city's waterfront trail.

Writer: Lee Stabert
Source: Curbed Philly,
The Philadelphia Inquirer

A grand plan to increase the city's stock of affordable housing

Last week, city officials announced an ambitious new plan to increase Philadelphia's stock of affordable housing. The initiative involves using tax incentives and bond proceeds to redevelop 1,500 vacant, city-owned properties over the next two to three years. In a city with many rapidly-gentrifying neighborhoods, thoughtful planning aimed at low-to-middle income residents is crucial.

The New York Times covered the plan, lauding its utilization of novel resources:

But Ms. Poethig said the Philadelphia plan was distinctive in that it would contribute city-owned land, because there had been a “robust” analysis of the economic benefits and because the city’s construction unions had agreed to reduce their rates for the project.

“I’m most encouraged by the fact that they want to use their own land rather than just relying on federal and state resources,” Ms. Poethig said.

One thousand of the housing units in the plan would be for rent; the remainder would be for sale. Philadelphia is in a strong position to ease its shortage of affordable housing because of its large stock of about 9,000 vacant, city-owned properties, and because of its access to untapped federal tax breaks that can be used for the project, officials said.

The properties would be aimed at households whose incomes are 80 to 120 percent of the area’s median income.

"Low-income housing is in strong demand in Philadelphia, where 26.9 percent of the population of 1.5 million lives at or below the federal poverty line," adds The Times. "For every 100 households classified as extremely poor, there are only 37 affordable rental units available, and there are 110,000 families on a waiting list for public housing, according to city figures."

The recently-passed Land Bank legislation was designed to enable just this sort grand civic project. The city now has far fewer barriers when it comes to utilizing vacant land in creative ways.

For more on the plan, including some interesting questions and concerns, check out these stories in PlanPhilly and Next City.

LEE STABERT is managing editor of Flying Kite Media and Keystone Edge.

UPenn's South Bank Master Plan aims to bring innovation to the Lower Schuylkill

Last week, the University of Pennsylvania made public its plans to construct a research park on 23 acres of land formerly owned by DuPont in the Lower Schuylkill section of Grays Ferry. The parcel is now being referred to as "the South Bank."
Flying Kite has reported extensively on the long-range development plans for the Lower Schuylkill River, but no announcement has generated as much public chatter and excitement as the recent one from Penn; it is just one small ingredient in a much larger campus development recipe known as Penn Connects 2.0, a so-called master plan "which has added nearly 3 million square feet of space to Penn’s campus since 2006," according to a release.   
One of the highlights of the South Bank will be a business incubator and accelerator called the Pennovation Center. (Current tenants will remain onsite after renovations begin.) That complex will feature lab space and a collaborative technology-transfer ecosystem that Penn hopes will eventually infuse the entire South Bank campus.  
According to Penn's Executive Director of Real Estate Ed Datz, the campus will be available to a wide range of users, from startups that grow out of university research to those without any previous university affiliation. The master plan, designed by Philadelphia-based firm WRT, creates a framework with initial development focused on light industrial and flex-use buildings. 

"The one consistent is the opportunity to let young, upstart companies have space -- at a reasonable rate -- to gather, to share ideas, and to advance their particular discipline," says Datz.

While an exact construction timeline hadn't been revealed, the multi-phase renovation work at the South Bank site may begin as early as this fall.

Writer: Dan Eldridge
Source: Ed Datz, University of Pennsylvania

Three underused lots could become Graduate Hospital's most vital intersection

Not long ago, the intersection of South 17th and Carpenter Streets in Graduate Hospital was home to a trio of underused vacant lots. All three were owned by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA) -- it had been attempting to unload the land for a decade.      

Now that intersection is beginning to transform in a major way.
The sustainably-designed mixed-use project known as Carpenter Square will soon rise there. And due partly to the interest generated by that project, PRA recently released an RFP for the still-empty lot on the opposite side of 17th Street.  
Meanwhile, according to the South of South Neighborhood Association's (SOSNA) Andrew Dalzell, that organization is "just waiting on the weather to get good" before moving forward with its plans for Carpenter Green, a small corner park slated for the intersection's northwest corner.
After signing a lease with the PRA and surveying neighbors to discover which amenities would be most in demand at the parklet (trash cans, lighting, trees and seating were all popular), SOSNA now has to settle on one of three possible designs before raising funds for Carpenter Green's construction.
Also coming soon to the immediate area: A new vision for the playground at the Edwin M. Stanton School, which sits just two blocks north of the intersection.
"2014 could be a very bright year for 17th and Carpenter," says Dalzell after running down the details behind Carpenter Square, Carpenter Green, the E.M. Stanton School playground, and the potential for new construction on the remaining lot. "With just those four things, suddenly that's pretty transformative for this two-block area." 

Writer: Dan Eldridge
Source: Andrew Dalzell, SOSNA

Former Governor Ed Rendell wins Ed Bacon Prize for his promotion of smart transportation

The late Edmund Bacon, born in Philadelphia during the summer of 1910, is a man whose name is synoymous with local architecture and urban planning. Former Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell will speak on that very subject on February 18 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where he'll also be awarded with the 8th annual Edmund N. Bacon Prize from the Philadelphia Center for Architecture.
According to David Bender, associate director of the Center, the annual Ed Bacon Prize is awarded to a professional who has achieved a significant amount of success in urban planning, development and design. (Paul Goldberger, an architecture critic for The New Yorker, and Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, are both past recipients.)
Rendell's achievements, Bender explains, were largely transportation-related, such as his proposal to add tolls to the Pennsylvania-wide Interstate 80. Investment in transportation infrastructure, Rendell once said, is vital to America's economic competitiveness, and is "the best job creator we have for well-paying jobs and also to help American manufacturing."
The student winners of the annual Better Philadelphia Challenge will also be honored during the event. This year's Challenge, which is held in honor of Bacon, asked design and architecture students worldwide to imagine a future Philadelphia landscape populated with the sort of self-driving vehicles currently being designed by Google. A $5,000 award will go to the first prize winner. 

Writer: Dan Eldridge
Source: David Bender, AIA Philadelphia 

Checking in with the Point Breeze CDC

The Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood of Point Breeze has been experiencing a frenzied pace of development over the past few years, with much of it arriving in the form of new construction units and rehabs from local developer Ori Feibush and his OCF Realty firm.
No stranger to community organization turf wars, the area has long been served by the South Philadelphia HOMES Inc.; Feibush launched his own organization, the Point Breeze CDC, in late 2013.

According to the CDC's executive director, Barbara Kelley, "[A lot of] what we're doing right now is supplementing the other agencies' services, and giving referrals to different agencies, like Diversified and Legal Aid."
The CDC is also working closing with the Point Breeze Avenue Business Association. And at some point "very soon," the office will install a sign featuring its new logo, which was designed by a neighborhood art student after a recent logo design contest.
Along with a few neighborhood music producers and area children, Kelley is also helping to develop an official Point Breeze song. The lyrics, she says, will consist of residents' thoughts and impressions about the neighborhood.

In other Point Breeze development news, OCF Realty recently broke ground on a 22 single-family home project on the 1300 block of Chadwick Street designed by YCH Architect LLC. OCF plans to donate $1,000 to Neighbors Investing in Childs Elementary (NICE) for each unit sold by an OCF Realtor.
"What we're noticing is that people leave the city after they have kids, and they come back when they're empty-nesters," says OCF's Alexandra Calukovic. Feibush's idea, she says, involves "donating to make a real impact in the community, instead of just donating to donate. And his thought process was that starts with schools."

Writer: Dan Eldridge
Source: Barbara Kelley, Point Breeze CDC; Alexandra Calukovic, OCF Realty


Washington Avenue's latest development: A year-long beautification effort

Thanks to a newly-inked contract between the Washington Avenue Property Owners Association (WAPOA) and the rehabilitative group known as Ready, Willing & Able (RWA), the mile-long western half of South Philly's Washington Avenue is about to become significantly tidier. (For more on the fate of Washington Avenue West, check out this week's lead feature.)

Along with career development and educational resources, RWA offers paid transitional work to formerly homeless and incarcerated men. That work often comes in the form of park maintenance and street cleaning. For the next 12 months, the "men in blue" (they wear distinctive blue uniforms) will transform the neighborhood's most economically crucial corridor into a much more inviting space.  

"We've know anecdotally for a long time that Washington Avenue is the dirtiest part of this neighborhood," says Andrew Dalzell of the South of South Neighborhood Organization (SOSNA). The group has even utilized something called a "litter index" to quantify the street's trash problem. The conclusion? Not good. But thanks to financial donations from WAPOA, SOSNA, PIDC, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson's office and others, the street is getting $10,000 worth of sprucing up. (The year-long contract began on Feb. 6).            

The RWA contract is especially big news for business owners and developers with a stake in the avenue's future. Various beautification efforts along the street's length have been just one of many initiatives instituted by local community organizations as they've attempted to woo development dollars and investment to the area. 

"I think the goal is [that once] we make this successful on Washington Avenue, Point Breeze Avenue takes note; Oregon Avenue takes note; Snyder Avenue takes note; South Broad takes note," says Dalzell. "The Avenue of the Arts should be hiring these guys, in my view." 

Writer: Dan Eldridge
Source: Andrew Dalzell, South of South Neighborhood Organization (SOSNA)

Is The Boyd Theatre finally ready for its close-up?

Following a months-long negotiation process with the city's Historical Commission and various preservation groups, Center City's Boyd Theatre might finally be ready to come alive again.  

Roughly two years ago, Florida-headquartered iPic-Gold Class Entertainment first showed interest in developing one of its high-end movie theaters at The Boyd, which opened in late-1928 as a silent film theatre (it closed for good in 2002). And while, in 2008, local preservationists managed to have the Boyd added to the Historical Commission's list of "protected assets," iPic has made a controversial choice: It asked for the Commission's blessing to completely gut the Boyd's auditorium, claiming the project wouldn't otherwise make financial sense. (The building's façade, its marquee and entranceway would all be restored under iPic's plan.) 

"The plan to totally restore [the Boyd] into its original state inside -- to make it either a one-screen movie theatre or a Broadway-type theatre -- those plans are all $30 to $50 million," says Kirk Dorn of Ceisler Media, which manages iPic's PR. "And you couldn't get the revenue from the theatre to produce that ."
On February 14, iPic will present its development plan -- two stories consisting of eight small theaters with reserved stadium seating, in-theatre dining and in-theatre waitstaff -- to the city's full commission. An onsite restaurant is also in the picture, and assuming iPic receives a "yes" vote on Valentine's Day, "We're hoping to open sometime in 2015," says iPic general counsel Paul Safron. 

"We're still willing to work with the preservation community," adds Safron. "We're happy to incorporate some of the design concepts and elements if we can."

Update: On February 12, we were informed by Kirk Dorn that the Philadelphia Historical Commission has postponed iPic's full commission hearing for one month; it's now scheduled for March 14. 

Writer: Dan Eldridge
Source: Kirk Dorn, Ceisler Media and Paul Safron, iPic Entertainment 

Coming soon to East Passyunk: A proper neighborhood entrance

If you walk the length of East Passyunk Avenue in South Philly -- and end up at the convergence of the Avenue, South Broad and McKean -- you'll see a nondescript slab of concrete that extends outward from the United Savings Bank building. The triangle points westward across Broad, as if directing pedestrians to the Philly Pretzel Factory across the street.

That will soon change. An exciting development is in the offing for that small stretch of concrete -- currently dubbed the East Passyunk Gateway project. Last week, in a small conference room at the old St. Agnes Continuing Care Center on South Broad, Sam Sherman, executive director of the Passyunk Avenue Revitalization Corporation (PARC), publicly unveiled the plans, which include a small splash fountain; concrete bench seating and chess-playing tables; various architectural lighting elements; shade trees and street-level planters; and a permanent sound system to accommodate events. The transformation will be possible thanks to a $495,000 grant from the William Penn Foundation

And those are just a small handful of the plaza's intended perks. There are also plans for a small, trellis-roofed area that the plaza's designer, landscape architect Bryan Hanes, refers to as "an iconic piece of furniture where events could happen," and where food carts or other vendors could set up shop. There is also talk of a bike-sharing station -- potentially the city's first.

The goal is to break ground on the plaza sometime this May or June. With the project's build-out estimated at six months, there's a possibility that the East Passyunk Gateway could be open for business as early as this fall. 

Writer: Dan Eldridge
Source: Sam Sherman, Passyunk Avenue Revitalization Corporation (PARC) 

As Benjamin's Desk celebrates an expansion, two new potential co-working locations are in the works

Local coworking space Benjamin's Desk recently leased an entire extra floor inside the Allman Building at 17th and Walnut. During the grand opening reception last Friday, visitors had an opportunity to check out the expanding organization in person. 

There were the expected touches -- exposed brick walls and duct work, perfectly buffed hardwood floors -- and then there were the amenities you don't always find in the coworking world: craft beers are on tap in the communal kitchen and a small outdoor roof deck that will eventually house a bar with lounge-like seating.    

According to president and CEO Michael Maher, who opened Benjamin's Desk on the building's seventh floor in October 2012, the newly-revealed eighth floor has been operational since September of last year. So why a five-months-late grand opening? 

"We had the space occupied by a company that was in stealth mode," explains Maher. "Now that the [eighth] floor is [officially] open and we're getting it occupied, we're looking to expand elsewhere in the region, including University City and the suburbs."

Maher says he and his colleagues are still "in the early stages of understanding what potential customers would want" in a University City or suburban-based shared office space, and they're being pretty hush-hush in terms of the exact locations under consideration. 

"We definitely think there is a demand in both [University City and the suburbs]," he adds. "But it took us two years to find this location. We'll wait until we find the right locations."

Writer: Dan Eldridge
Source: Michael J. Maher, Benjamin's Desk

This summer, gallery-worthy bicycle racks will sprout throughout Center City

Thanks to a recently-formed partnership between the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia (BCGP) and the City's Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, local cyclists -- especially those who ride into Center City on a regular basis -- will have at least 10 new places to lock up this summer. 

BCGP applied to the Knight Arts Challenge, a contest aimed at beautifying public spaces. "We were one of the 43 winning proposals selected back in May, along with a lot of other great projects of varying size and scope," says BCGP's Nicholas Mirra. 

That application consisted of about a dozen designs for site-specific, artist-created bicycle racks. One particularly unusual rack, constructed from stainless steel with room for four bikes, resembles a patch of waist-high grass. Another rack, this one with space for six bikes, is a minimalist sculpture featuring three life-size guard dogs. 

The Knight Foundation's $50,000 grant was predicated on the two partner organizations' ability to raise matching funds. That goal was accomplished via anonymous donations and money offered by the half-dozen or so institutions scheduled to host the racks on their properties. And while negotiations for a few locations are still in progress, the artist-designed racks are set to arrive this summer outside of City Hall, Sister Cities Park, Boathouse Row, Café Pret, Penn Center Plaza and the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Perlman Building.    
And for those who suggest that the city already has more than enough parking for two-wheeled riders, Mirra offers this retort: "There aren't enough. If you look around sections of Center City, the spaces for bicycle parking are as full as the spaces for car parking. And so you get bikes parked to trees, [and] parked to private fencing where they're not supposed to be. There's [simply] not enough bike parking in the city."

Fortunately, that's about to change.

Source: Nicholas Mirra, Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia 
Writer: Dan Eldridge

Diggerland USA comes to South Jersey, local construction-loving kids (and adults) rejoice

At a press conference hosted last week at Sahara Sam's Oasis in West Berlin, N.J., representatives of the five-year-old water park announced an upcoming project that will be followed as closely by the area's elementary school set as it will by their parents. A construction-themed adventure park known as Diggerland USA will be built on a 14-acre footprint directly behind Sahara Sam's. 

Though there are currently four locations in the United Kingdom, Diggerland USA will be the first park of its kind in this country. Sahara Sam's, which is overseeing the construction, is projecting an opening date in early-summer 2014. The project received approval at a late-November planning and zoning board meeting in Berlin Township. The Girlya family, which owns both Sahara Sam’s and South Jersey’s Sambe Construction Company, will build the park; they have already broken ground.

"The Township of West Berlin -- the City Council, the Council members -- have been very supportive [of the project]," says Sahara Sam Director of Marketing Chris Peters. "West Berlin itself is not necessarily a very dense area," he adds, though because the park will be located roughly 90 minutes from Manhattan and across the bridge from Philadelphia, "this has been looked at as a great location for an expansion of an entertainment venue [of this sort]."

Twenty-three separate rides and attractions (most of them made of "modified JCB heavy construction pieces," according to a release) will be on offer when Diggerland USA opens its South Jersey gates. Faux construction machinery designed for child and adult use alike will range from small excavators and dumpers to backhoes and tractors. The park will also sport a ropes course and rock-climbing area. 

Source: Chris Peters, Sahara Sam's Oasis 
Writer: Dan Eldridge

A new public transit-friendly home for the Resource Exchange, Philly's creative reuse workshop

These days, warehouse-sized reuse centers selling old construction supplies and development detritus seem to exist in nearly every major metropolitan area. But in Philadelphia, The Resource Exchange -- currently located on the corner of Cedar and East Cambria streets in Port Richmond -- operates with a slightly different mission. 

Sure, it resells salvaged building materials and housewares, but it also offers donated and salvaged film props and set pieces, along with arts and craft materials, making it popular with artists, makers, DIY-types and other members of the city's creative class.  

That popularity has led to an issue.

"Right now, we're kind of tucked into a residential neighborhood," says Resource Exchange founder and Executive Director Karyn Gerred. That makes it difficult for budget-conscious customers to reach the shop via public transportation. 

So Gerred decided they needed a change. The Resource Exchange will close for the month of February, then reopen at a slightly larger and much more accessible location on the corner of North 2nd Street and Cecil B. Moore, only six or seven blocks from the Berks Station on the Market-Frankford Line.     

"Just in terms of creating a great, welcoming, creative reuse center in a way that I've always imagined, it's a much better building," says Gerred. "It's much better suited to what we are. It lends itself more to being able to have the workshop-and-event part of what we do."

The new-and-improved Resource Exchange plans to open its new 4,500-square-foot location on March 1. 

Source: Karyn Gerred, The Resource Exchange 
Writer: Dan Eldridge

Could a new river road help revitalize the Lower Schuylkill?

As part of the Lower Schuylkill Master Plan (LSMP), a long-term revitalization blueprint released last year, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corportation (PIDC) has announced an RFP for a feasibility study of a proposed river road in the district. According to PIDC Senior Real Estate Manager Kate McNamara, "It's not your typical PennDot project."

The bottom line, she explains, is that both the city and PIDC are united in their understanding that the Lower Schuylkill, once a hotbed of heavy manufacturing and innovation, is today "a place that [is] really in need of some serious redevelopment attention." In fact, when the final version of the LSMP was published, it recommended splitting the Lower Schuylkill into three separate "campuses" in an effort to drive the next generation of growth. 

The 512-acre campus adjacent to University City -- known as the Innovation District -- is where the majority of the LSMP's early projects will be taking place. According to the RFP, roadways on the west bank of the District, roughly between Grays Ferry Avenue to the north and Passyunk Avenue to the south, are "indirect, circuitous, and non-intuitive." And because so many of the businesses that once operated in the area were largely served by the river, quality road infrastructure is lacking. 

A budget of $200,000 has been set aside to see if the north-south connector road proposed in the Master Plan is feasible, and to explore possible alternatives.

"You really need another north-south arterial to bring businesses in, and just to bring regular citizens down to the river," says McNamara. "That's where the new extension of the Schuylkill Banks Trail is going to be." 

The resulting study should be complete within six to nine months. And after that? Another study, of course, but with much more detail and a steeper price tag. Fortunately, the upside is tremendous. West Philly is home to a number of companies that are getting too big for University City -- they could become new residents of the Innovation District.

"They don't have the space they need, and so a lot of [them] go to the suburbs," says McNamara. "And we would prefer to keep them."

Writer: Dan Eldridge
Source: Kate McNamara, Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC)

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