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On the Ground: The nascent Centennial Parkside CDC has energy to spare

Parkside's ascendent Community Development Corporation

Christopher Scott hasn't always lived in Parkside, but he has roots there. His grandfather lived in the neighborhood and his mother grew up there. After his grandfather passed away in 2004, Scott moved back into the family house. Despite being nestled between attractions such as the Philadelphia Zoo, the Please Touch Museum and the Mann Center that draw millions of visitors every year, Parkside remains a struggling neighborhood. Poverty rates are near 50 percent and hundreds of properties between Girard Avenue and Parkside Avenue sit vacant.

In the years after Scott moved to Parkside, he watched as a Community Development Corporation (CDC) tried -- and largely failed -- to stimulate development in the neighborhood. Now he's ready to try again.

"Parkside has been in the condition it is in for decades," he says. "At some point you want to try something a little different."

In late August, Scott and other local stakeholders officially founded the Centennial Parkside CDC, and if they're able to realize their vision, Parkside will be more than just a little different. Scott's goal is to create an "Energy Improvement District" -- Centennial Parkside CDC would supply electricity to neighborhood residents from renewable energy sources, and then use the income stream from electricity payments to provide supplemental services to keep Parkside "safe, clean and green." There are a few examples of Energy Improvement Districts around the country, but Parkside would be Philadelphia's first.

High Energy

While an Energy Improvement District would be new for the City of Brotherly Love, Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) have a 25-year history here. Beginning in 1990 with the creation of the Center City District, BIDs have been a way for property owners and businesses to fund services specifically for their neighborhood. A 2012 report from the Philadelphia Department of Commerce and Drexel University's Center for Public Policy identified 14 BIDs across the city, from the East Passyunk Business Improvement District in the south, to the Port Richmond Industrial Development Enterprise in the northeast and the Chestnut Hill District in the northwest.

Each Improvement District has unique characteristics, but generally property and business owners agree to pay fees directly to a third-party organization responsible for delivering agreed upon services such as trash cleanup, capital improvements, landscaping, marketing and public safety. All functions provided by the Improvement District are performed in addition to traditional city services.

According to Scott, that model won't work in Parkside. 

"The difference in this neighborhood is that it is almost entirely poor and our institutions, while they have a lot of influence, don't have the ability to shell out extra surcharges for services," he argues.

But Parkside residents and businesses already pay for electricity. Since 1996, consumers in Pennsylvania have been able to choose their energy provider. PECO, as the utility for Philadelphia, still delivers all the electricity for the city, but a wide range of providers -- including Green Mountain Energy, Constellation and Think Energy -- compete with PECO for the business of supplying the energy. Centennial Parkside CDC wants to compete as well.

"In a full-district build-out model, [we] would be providing all of the energy," says Scott. "It is a true Energy Improvement District that is self-sustaining."

Centennial Parkside CDC would install and operate the energy infrastructure -- all renewable sources -- on vacant lots, public structures and private land around the neighborhood. All residents would have to do is change their energy provider and begin paying the CDC to supply their electricity. The revenue generated would be used to support the types of street cleaning, greening and neighborhood development activities common among CDCs and BIDs citywide.

But that future is a long way off. It will require significant investment, particularly in solar panels. And it will require residents and businesses to get on board. For now, the CDC is just trying to demonstrate that the idea can work on a small scale. 

To that end, they have approached the Philadelphia Zoo about the possibility of a sample project on their newly-constructed, above-ground parking garage. Centennial Parkside CDC would install and operate solar panels there and the Zoo would pay the the organization to supply a portion of their energy needs.

Reached for comment, a representative from the Philadelphia Zoo indicated that "the Zoo has not committed to the solar idea."
"We need a true and willing partner to help get it kickstarted," argues Scott. "The Zoo is the biggest partner we could have, so we need to get them on board. That's the bottom line."

A Neighborhood Effort

The Parkside Energy Improvement District is the longterm plan, but in the meantime the organization isn't just waiting around. The Centennial Parkside CDC was formally incorporated in late August of this year. Without revenue from the Energy Improvement District, the organization is currently pursuing more traditional sources of funding: foundations and donors.

They are also trying to learn from the previous failed CDC effort in Parkside, which in Scott's estimation failed mostly due to overreach. He describes the current incarnation as a "crawling-to-walking approach" rather than the "let's-run-from-day-one approach" of the earlier effort.

"Let's just do the basic things that good neighborhoods have -- clean streets, well-lit streets, safe streets," he argues. "Then you can talk about strategic development and things that naturally gravitate to those types of environments."

In order to begin this work, the CDC is drawing deeply upon the energy that already exists within the community. Three civic associations -- the Viola Street Neighbors Association, the East Parkside Residents Association and the 39th Street Association -- are already onboard and have representatives working closely with Centennial Parkside CDC. Local religious institutions are supporting their efforts; the Philadelphia Zoo, the Please Touch Museum and the Mann Center are also involved.

Having buy-in from those larger institutions is a key part of the group's strategy.

"The more we can partner with them to affect their influence on the neighborhood, the better the neighborhood is going to be," says Scott. "We get a lot of the externality of the institutions -- the traffic and whatnot -- but we don't see a positive partnership from them. I think this is a big step in shifting that relationship going forward."

Whether or not the energy project happens, leaders from the Zoo have already volunteered to serve as founding board members of the CDC and see their attraction as a catalyst for community self-empowerment in Parkside.

"The Zoo is supporting the creation of the Parkside CDC because it is being created by local residents in response to longstanding community issues," explains Ken Woodson, the institution's vice president of community and government affairs. "The Zoo supports Parkside's interest in becoming a great neighborhood, one that is clean and safe with affordable housing, great schools and transportation."

Small business owners are also getting involved. Jerry Fokas began working in Parkside in 1970 as a dishwasher in his father's restaurant; he was 12 years old. 

"I can go back 45 years and remember when there was a hotel on the corner, there was a movie theater," he recalls. "Between Belmont Avenue and 39th Street and the 900 to 1000 block of 40th Street, that was all retail. That's all gone."

Today Fokas owns eight properties on Girard Avenue including a restaurant, a pizzeria, and a bar. But business is slow: Sales are down 40 percent from their peak.

Several years ago, the Philadelphia Department of Commerce approached him about the possibility of rehabbing the apartments above his stores. They came to Fokas because he was the largest continuous landowner in the neighborhood. The hope was that if he invested in his properties, it would be a positive signal to other owners and investors. The Commerce Department hoped to pair Fokas up with a CDC to assist with the development, but there was no CDC in Parkside.

Fortunately for Fokas, the Enterprise Center at 46th and Market was willing to work with him; his freshly renovated apartments are almost ready to rent. The experience has left him wanting more.

"They were great partners," he enthuses. "Working with them has given me some experience as to what the CDC can become and where we can go and what we can do."

Now Fokas is working with Scott, the civic associations, the Zoo and others to make sure the next time a property owner has an investment project, or a resident has an idea they want to implement, or the City needs a development partner, Centennial Parkside CDC will be there to help.

"There are so many assets in this neighborhood," insists Scott. "If we do it a different way and figure this out, this neighborhood is going to soar."

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.

BRANDON ALCORN is the Operations Manager for Rebuilding Together Philadelphia and a freelance writer whose work has recently appeared in NatureThe New Republic and Slate. Follow him on Twitter at @b_alcorn.
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