by David Ferris
Using markers, maps, colored pencils, and trace paper, about 40 individuals gathered in the reception area of the Community Design Collaborative (the Collaborative) to craft a vision for revitalization surrounding the recently rebuilt 46th and Market Street elevated SEPTA station. They began the ambitious redesign of the neighborhood at 8am on a chilly November Friday, hoping by the end of the day they would have the major pieces of a plan to address the area’s significant challenges while capitalizing on its assets.
Photo by Dominic Mercier
Participants in this “charrette” – a collaborative session in which a group of designers drafts a solution to a design problem – included not just designers and architects, but also community members, institutional stakeholders, landowners, businesses, and nonprofits that call the neighborhood home.
“It’s setting up the building blocks a little differently through community participation,” said Modesto Bigas-Valedon, a volunteer with the Collaborative from the firm Wallace Roberts & Todd.
The design process was a direct result of a larger community engagement process, initiated by The Enterprise Center (TEC) and Philadelphia LISC. To take advantage of recent investment and growing interest in the area, LISC and TEC invited neighborhood stakeholders to engage in the design process, facilitated by an all-volunteer team of designers, planners, architects, and city department staff with the Community Design Collaborative. The Collaborative provided the platform, using its experience creating and enabling community-oriented projects.
“We needed TEC and LISC to help engage the stakeholders, whether they’re private or public, and the community so this doesn’t all happen in a vacuum,” Bigas-Valedon said. “They provided focus that allowed us to look at this in a realistic way, to lead to implementable solutions and a sustainable plan.”
Photo by Mark Garvin
These stakeholders included residents and members of local organizations, but also actual landowners, institutional representatives, people from city departments. “People who were at the table were people from the community and people who can actually implement what comes out of this,” said Greg Heller, Director of TEC’s Community Development Corporation.
“An obsession” – why the 46th and Market area is attracting attention
The event was timely, as new developments have sprung up and improvements have been made in the area in the last year, with more coming soon. If all current proposals are implemented, nearly $500 Million in new investments and thousands of daily employees and visitors will come to the two-block radius around the station, what some hopeful locals are calling “the gateway to West Philadelphia.”
At the same time, there is a lot of progress to be made. One critical issue raised by neighbors was a lack of neighborhood connectivity, due to real and perceived barriers such as fences, grade changes, subway infrastructure, dead end streets, and community isolation and division. The area suffers from poor perceptions from neighbors as well as visitors, thanks to a lack of amenities, few eyes on the street, and, as a result, persistent crime. Stakeholders also pointed out that not one business is open after 8pm; street and parcel designs tend to favor cars over folks walking, biking, or talking the subway; stormwater pools at the intersection thanks to the long-buried Mill Creek; and large tracts of vacant land that at one point served industrial purposes make the area dark and uninviting.
Looking down Market Street, you can see 4601 Market, the site of the new Police Department, the Aldi’s parking lot, and the 46th Street Station.
All these issues really affect urban design and planning and also impact the quality of life for residents on a daily basis. “It’s all there in this one site area,” Bigas-Valedon said. What’s more, all these problems reinforce each other, making any solution all the more complicated. Still, stakeholders are optimistic, given the area’s institutional assets, the new SEPTA station, other recent investments, and the short 8 minute commute to City Hall in downtown Philadelphia.
For TEC and LISC, the opportunity to push forward change around 46th and Market is central to their respective work in West Philadelphia. TEC is located one block from the transit stop on Market Street and has been supportive of community development efforts in the area since 2001. TEC provided capacity building training to the Walnut Hill Civic Association, helping build its Board of Directors, attracting funding, and partnering on neighborhood issues. “We have helped empower the local community association to advocate for itself, largely resulting in the fact that we don’t have to,” said Heller. As a result, the neighborhood association now can represent the neighborhood, get information out to residents, and have a voice in zoning issues.
In addition, LISC works closely with TEC-CDC and other nonprofit partners to bring development to West Philadelphia and connect residents there to opportunities through its Sustainable Communities Initiative (SCI-West). For example, with LISC financing, TEC-CDC recently opened Center for Culinary Enterprises, which converted a vacant supermarket into a food enterprise incubator and three neighborhood restaurants.
When looking at 46th and Market, it’s also personal. LISC Director Andrew Frishkoff, who addressed the charrette participants in the morning briefing, admitted that revitalization of the transit area had always been “a personal obsession.” TEC President Della Clark echoed this sentiment, reiterating her personal commitment to the neighborhood and promising to drive the revitalization plan forward “until I’m 99 years old, if I have to.”
LISC’s Andy Frishkoff and Tina Brooks participated in the charrette as advisers. Photo by Dominic Mercier
The idea was to revisit the existing plans, studies, and zoning ordinances for the area. Once the new plan is complete, LISC and TEC hope to continue to convene the group to drive implementation forward. Heller says he’s eager to see “a framework for implementation, figuring out what are the steps to implement these things, what agencies need to be involved, what it’s going to cost, and when it will get done.”
Room at the table for residents and neighborhood civic groups
Community stakeholders, in a meeting one month before the charrette, came to consensus on a list of challenges and opportunities for the area, which they categorized into major priorities to guide designers during the charrette. “A lot of times, the community may not be involved or brought to the table until after the plan has been laid. But this is encouraging,” said Cassandra Green, Executive Director of the Mill Creek Community Partnership. “As a smaller agency in the community, we can tell people that there is an open forum to be engaged.”
Local representatives also joined in the charrette to make sure the designs actually addressed their main concerns, and to lend their specific and daily knowledge about the area. “It was inclusive for people who live here, and will be ultimately for the people who come here,” said Lorna Peterson, a leader of the Walnut Hill Civic Association who participated. “In that respect, it’s a win-win.”
One of the major issues residents brought up was the lack of connection with folks living in the area north of Market Street. “We can’t see the West Park community because it’s boxed in. That’s a disengaged community, and everything in this area perpetuates it,” says Peterson. Barriers such as the train line, a steep grade change, fences, and an unwelcoming stairwell with tall walls reiterates the division, she said. “We can’t go over there and I guess they feel like they aren’t welcome over here, and it causes tension. But it’s only because of that separation, both visible and invisible.”
The West Park Apartments, separated from Market Street by the Market-Frankford line as it rises above ground. Stakeholders are hoping to find ways to increase connectivity between the neighborhoods north and south of Market St.
In any case, these groups recognized the need for more outreach and relationship building with residents in the West Park Apartments and Nehemiah Homes neighborhoods. “There’s room at the table,” said Green. “We need to reach out to people and let them know there’s room at the table.”
Representatives from the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which manages the West Park Apartments, were also involved in the process. The proposed changes recommend opening up PHA’s property by removing fences and connecting streets and walkways through the “superblock.” Stakeholders are hopeful PHA will take some of the recommendations into account in its planning for the future of the area.
A future nexus for public institutions
In addition to residents, a number of major institutions occupy the area, especially in the section north of Market St. The charrette included the newest institution in the area, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Karabots Pediatric Care Center, as well as the area’s oldest institution, The Kirkbride Center. Kirkbride actually predates the neighborhood, and has provided care for people struggling with mental illness since the early 1800s (one of its buildings dates back to 1840).
Health Center 4, at 4400 Haverford Ave, currently provides medical and dental services to residents. The neighboring Lee Cultural Center also offers recreation infrastructure, including basketball courts, a large soccer and baseball field, tennis courts, and a pool. Though these resources are valuable, residents point to connectivity barriers which limit the ability for residents to access them.
Photo by Mark Garvin
The new West Philadelphia High School is also located two blocks to the west of the train station, and West Philadelphia Catholic High School sits one block to the east. Families on both sides of Market Street send children to Locke Elementary at 46th and Haverford, bringing some attention to the need for safer pedestrian routes along 46th Street.
With all of these institutions, the area is rich in public services. Adding to this, in March Mayor Michael Nutter announced the relocation of the Police Department and some Health Department functions to the old Provident Mutual Life Insurance building at 4601 Market Street. “The pending Police Department development is obviously central to the 46th Street intersection, and is the eye of redevelopment of this district,” said John Fleming, Director of the Kirkbride Center. Nevertheless, the project is on hold until financing and funding can be secured.
The decision to look at the site was made “in strategic connection with the development of the adjacent Youth Study Center,” according to Mandy Davis of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC). PIDC, Philadelphia’s economic development agency, acquired the property on behalf of the City of Philadelphia, and conducted a feasibility study for the adaptive reuse of the 86 year-old administration and auditorium buildings on the site. Davis represented PIDC and the 4601 Market project in the charrette and visioning process.
4601 Market Street closeup, where the Philadelphia Police Department may move its headquarters.
Everett Gillison, chief of staff to Mayor Nutter, spoke to charrette participants after hearing about their ideas, but gave few clues as to whether the police department relocation to 4601 Market St. was any closer to finding financial backing. Gillison expressed his support for everyone’s contributions to creating a vision for the area, and promised to keep pushing for City investment in the area on his end.
Will private investment and business expansion follow this public investment?
With the recent and planned institutional expansion in the area, there will certainly be room for more businesses serving employees and visitors, including shops, cafes, restaurants, and other amenities. “When the Police relocate to 4601 Market, they are going to bring with them a need for 24 hour amenities, which would be a great catalyst for the neighborhood’s development,” explained Davis.
To address some of this expected increase in demand for retail amenities, The Enterprise Center CDC has been for the past few years pushing forward Enterprise Heights, a proposed commercial development on vacant land just southwest of the SEPTA station. That development would provide a few badly needed spaces for new businesses and would further catalyze commercial redevelopment on Market St.
Local businesses have been also involved, including Central City Toyota at 48th and Chestnut and Foreman Mills at 48th and Market. Other businesses such as Aldi’s have been invited to the table, with little engagement thus far. Residents and stakeholders are hopeful to engage them in the future, and would like to see changes to the rather large, street-facing parking lot at Aldi’s, which they agree contributes to the remote, unsafe feel of the area.
Recently, blighted row homes along Farragut Street were demolished, leaving the SEPTA station alone on the intersection.
Hopefully the resulting plan can still inform even reluctant property owners. “It’s not an attempt to overstep any boundaries of ownership or rights,” explained Bigas-Valedon, “but we are trying to create a vision around consensus, that would help inform all the necessary things to improve this neighborhood.”
The group should continue to invite Aldi’s to the table, Peterson said, to share the plan with them, and show them how these changes will ultimately help grow their business. “If we make the area more attractive and bring more people here, we’ll bring more businesses here.”
Moving through conflict to greater understanding
Nearly all of these historically active, recently developed, and hopefully envisioned institutions and ventures joined the stakeholder group and contributed ideas to the charrette. Teams tackled different focus areas within the overall geography. Participation from residents and stakeholders helped designers and planners understand the nuances of the issues affecting the area.
At the same time, any process of reimagining a place is bound to experience some conflict. For planners, the area presents new challenges and an opportunity to implement an exciting vision. Locals, on the other hand, understand the history and complexity of the area. These and countless other differences in perspective demonstrate why it’s so important to have such diverse stakeholder input into these plans. And why focusing on dialogue and consensus is the only way to move forward.
The obvious example of a recent contentious issue is the 10-year renovation of the Elevated Market Street SEPTA line. Three years after the reconstruction has finished, residents still contend the process led to the decline of business along Market Street, as well as general neighborhood decline. Some are asking for reparations from SEPTA or the City.
The SEPTA elevated line comes above ground at 45th and Market Streets. Add to this grade changes, walls, fences, dead end streets, and few pedestrian access points and you have a neighborhood in need of creative connectivity solutions.
If residents, businesses, organizations, etc. are involved from the beginning and their perspective respected, perhaps some of the impacts of change can be anticipated and mitigated on the front end. “Although we have all these big institutions and agencies coming to the neighborhood, outside of services, how will they affect the community?” Green asks. “There needs to be some job training, there needs to be markets, there needs to be accessibility. We welcome these new pieces, but we can’t forget about what exists here now, the people that have been there and weathered the storm, with the renovation of the El.”
“There are a lot of unmet needs,” said Freda Egnal, of Garden Court Civic Association. She’s also concerned that institutions will overlook community priorities. “What [residents] need is what every neighborhood needs. They need good housing, they need good jobs, they need decent education and childcare, they need basic shopping,” she added.
The proposed Police Headquarters at 4601 Market Street is also controversial among residents. From a planning perspective, the development could be a significant catalyst for revitalization by attracting new businesses and amenities. Unfortunately, residents have not felt that they have had a voice in the decision-making process. “We don’t want them to just come and not offer anything,” said Peterson. “I would like to see the administration have open doors for the community.”
In the charrette, folks on different sides of the table had to slow down often and listen to every concern in order to approach issues with understanding of their full complexity. After all, as Green cautioned, “There is an existing community. It’s not something we are discovering.”
West Philadelphia residents like Lorna Peterson (left) and the author (right) contributed their local knowledge to the charrette process. Photo by Mark Garvin
Fortunately this stakeholder engagement process has created a forum where residents, institutions, and other organizations can foster dialogue around these sticky issues in an ongoing way. “People were really open to talk things out,” Green said. “It was a wonderful exchange of ideas and an open forum.” Hopefully, this stakeholder group will continue to provide this kind of mechanism for dialogue as the planning and implementation unfold.
Moving forward implementing the group vision
At the end of a long day of brainstorming, discussion, problem solving, and visioning, participants presented their ideas and drawings to the public. A guest panel of expert planners, funders (including Tina Brooks from LISC), nonprofit leaders, and city officials listened and shared their comments on the ideas.
“Teams had to come up with solutions very quickly; they had no time to argue. They had to use their creativity, use their partners on their teams, residents, institutions, to come up with something that made sense,” said Bigas-Valedon. “It was challenging for the teams to produce something in one day, but I think that was also the beauty of it.”
Cassandra Green (left) represented the Mill Creek Community Partnership at the charrette. Photo by Mark Garvin
Moving forward, the design team will compile recommendations and drawings from the charrette to develop a comprehensive vision and plan, with ideas for early implementation and strategic phasing. They key here is to keep it practical and to identify projects that can be implemented almost right away, the “low-hanging fruit.” “We are not just going to talk about urban design,” said Bigas-Valedon. “We want to make urban design a participatory process, where implementable projects don’t exist in a vacuum, but have the backing of multiple stakeholders so that they actually do happen.”
“With participation among all the owners here, I think we could have a noticeable difference in under three years,” said Peterson. It’s more likely that some stakeholders will remain on the sidelines, she said, even if they are invited. “We need to push forward, to work together to keep these things in progress. It’s really necessary for people to come together, and for those who won’t, begin taking steps to move around them.”
Green expressed her hope that other residents and leaders would have the opportunity to participate in this kind of process in the future. “Most often we can only manage to get through the struggles of our day to day circumstances,” she said, “and what a blessing it is if we are given an opportunity to consider and ponder the possibilities of tomorrow.”
See more pictures from the charrette.
Take a virtual tour of part of the 46th and Market Street area.