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South Street West Comes of Age

On a recent, freakishly warm Friday night, a Philadelphia restaurant row was hopping with couples dining alfresco, a bar full of folks sipping wine, young families picking up take-out. Passyunk Avenue, you might think. 13th Street?  Walnut?
No, the action was on South Street, west of Broad, where an influx of new restaurants, together with established places, is establishing the once-woebegone street as a new dining destination. On the 1500 block alone, there's Sawatdee, a newish Thai place;  the Baja Room, a Mexican joint; the chic Jet Wine Bar; the brand-new Rex 1516 for fine dining; The Quick Fixx, which does eat-in or take-out; and a new gastropub being outfitted at the old Tritone dive bar.
Indeed, there has been steady new construction and rehabilitation all along the once-derelict blocks of western South Street from Broad to the Schuylkill River, in defiance of the recession and the closing of Graduate Hospital and accelerating with the 2010 reopening of the South Street Bridge. New infill projects punctuate the street. Real estate signs abound. Old storefronts are being remodeled, corrugated security gates going away, new casement windows flung open to the street and buildings painted. The scrappy South Street West Business Association (SSWBA) over the years has overseen the addition of streetscape improvements – trees, lighting, bicycle racks and banners that urge passersby to "venture off center," branding the street as a destination and greatly improving the aesthetics of the corridor.
Architect Jim Campbell has lived and worked on South Street since the late 70s, when a failed plan to build a crosstown expressway had left behind blight and disinvestment. "It was tough," he recalls. "There was a high crime rate and a huge amount of vacancy and vandalism." 
But gradually, reinvestment marched south from Rittenhouse Square – a block every five years, Campbell reckons, pushing gentrification with it. Today, the neighborhoods that flank western South Street are stable and even affluent. The 30th ward, from South to Washington and Broad to the river, saw its median family income jump from $29,000 to over $75,000 between 2000 and 2009. The neighborhood today, flush with young families, recalls Park Slope in Brooklyn.
And there is more to come. Toll Brothers is underway with its 2400 South project, which, with 66 townhomes and 59 condominiums, will add significant population. The project engendered a long fight over its design, notably the original site plan, which would have created two large breaks along South Street for parking access. The final plan still has one large curb cut on South Street, less than ideal but better than before. 
The other big issue was – and remains – the lack of commercial space along South Street. Marcus Iannozzi, the SSWBA president, concedes that density is good, but argues, "The neighborhood needs commercial. Continued erosion will have an impact on our long-term sustainability." Others argue that not every block can support commercial. Several pending projects, including one on the 1700 block and one at the triple lot on the 1600 block where unfinished construction has loomed for years, will have commercial at the ground floor and residential above.
Other challenges remain, especially the blighted Royal Theater on the 1600 block. Those active on the street dream of a music venue, a farmer's market or a sports club at the historic theater. They say there have been multiple expressions of interest, but that the owner, Kenny Gamble's Universal Companies, has not been willing to entertain offers. (Universal did not return phone calls.) Meanwhile, the condition of the building continues to deteriorate.
"We're very frustrated with the lack of movement on this property," says Iannozzi. "It is an anchor for the neighborhood and a sizeable lot and it has the potential to really transform these blocks." 
Still, he adds, "We've been succeeding in spite of it." Indeed, the months to come will bring to western South Street Mushmina, a small fair-trade importer from Morocco, in its first retail location; a new Pure Fare casual eatery; a second Honey's Sit and Eat, the popular Northern Liberties restaurant; a CVS and the new Magpie Artisan Pie Bakery, among other new businesses.
Past the tipping point, and with the economy in recovery, expectations are high for the continued emergence of this long-overlooked corridor. "I'm shocked that it's taken as long as it has," says Ori Feibush, whose OCF Realty is a player on the street. Jim Campbell sees Broad and South as the next big thing "And when it explodes, those blocks of South Street will be a regional draw." It happened on Passyunk Ave. It happened on 13th Street. No reason it can't happen here.
ELISE VIDER is a writer, editor, observer and advocate for economic development and design excellence in Philadelphia, her adopted hometown.


The Royal Theatre - South St.


Jet Wine Bar

Elevation showing renovation plans for Tritone

Quick Fixx


All photographs by MICHAEL PERSICO
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