Archive for December, 2012

Upgrades on “The Strip”: Persistence and collaboration behind the scenes bring changes to 52nd Street

December 14, 2012

Can a commercial corridor get a facial? Maybe not, but 52nd Street, also known as “The Strip” and the “Main Street of West Philadelphia,” does look like it just returned from a long awaited appointment at the beauty salon.

Facade on 52nd

The corridor recently received major cosmetic improvements that make the district more inviting. A total of 24 stores enjoy new façades and storefronts, complete with colorful fabric awnings and improved security gates installed behind storefront windows. Over the past few years, the Philadelphia Commerce Department has really championed 52nd Street, encouraging collaboration among a diverse set of stakeholders that led to the recent changes.

The new façades are a welcome and hopeful sign of improvement on a corridor that’s been struggling for years. Neighbors and customers have retreated from 52nd Street over the last few decades as it became renowned with drug dealing. Whether the safety concerns are real or perceived, the area suffers from a lot of leakage – neighbors are finding what they need and spending their money elsewhere.

A number of other issues have impeded progress. Thanks to the intentional and collaborative work to address these deeper problems, 52nd Street may yet experience the renaissance everyone’s been hoping for.

Building A Strong Organization to Champion Development

Without a Community Development Corporation (CDC), 52nd Street could not contract with the City’s Commerce Department to perform corridor improvement and maintenance work. LISC has supported the efforts by the Commerce Department, The Enterprise Center, and the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians to finally get the 52nd Street CDC up and running in 2012.

LISC and its partners worked to help the up-and-coming CDC develop and position itself to implement the economic development plan written by the City. “The [52nd Street] CDC was created to drive that plan forward, but we want to build their ability to be more effective as an agent of change on the corridor,” explained Jamie Gauthier, a Program Officer for LISC.

The Corridors of Retail Excellence (CORE) program, a national initiative of LISC’s funded by PNC, has supported the organizational development work of the 52nd Street CDC. The CORE program also helps selected corridors analyze market data, identify issues and opportunities, and drive projects that can be catalysts for successful corridor revitalization.

Thankfully, last spring, the 52nd Street CDC came to an agreement with the Commerce Department around storefront improvements. Commerce made special allowance to help business owners on 52nd street afford façade renovations. Business owners only had to come up with 10% of the cost, instead of a 50% match as required to participate in the standard Storefront Improvement Program (SIP). This attracted more buy-in from merchants, and in five short months, 24 stores would enjoy new facades.

Strengthening Unity through Respect for Differences

Disagreements between street vendors and storefront business owners have also slowed progress, as well as conflicts between leaders vying for input and recognition. But recently, thanks to efforts of local business owners like Art Williams, businesses and vendors are working more closely together, in spite of their differences.

Williams remembers his own turning point. One night over a year ago, another community leader pulled him into a meeting. Williams was not in favor of having street vendors, at least not in a way that detracted from overall business on the corridor. And he openly spoke up.

An immigrant street vendor stood up to respond. “Look, I’m out here every day because I have to feed my family. I have a little girl I have to feed.”

Williams was taken aback. “I have a little girl, so it was easy to put myself in his shoes,” Williams said. “That changed my perspective on the idea of having vendors on the corridor.”

After that night, Williams became a mediator who worked to foster dialogue between vendors and owners, and between African American and immigrant merchants. He understood that change was only going to happen with hard work and collaboration. He didn’t want progress to leave anybody behind.

“Art Williams has been able to bring together so many different business owners from different backgrounds,” explained Karolyn Chamberlin of The Enterprise Center and formerly of the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians. “52nd Street has a majority of immigrant business owners… [Williams] has been able to bring people together in a way that hasn’t happened before, to my knowledge.”

facade 52nd

Williams played a key role in mobilizing and uniting the people on 52nd Street around the storefront and façade improvement work with the Commerce Department. In addition, his construction company contracted with the City to complete the renovations in just 5 months.

According to Chamberlin and others, progress would have been much slower and more difficult without the Williams’ organizing efforts. “I’ve worked really closely with 52nd Street for a long time, and I do find Art Williams to be someone who has succeeded in moving things forward in a lot of ways that other neighborhoods haven’t been able to,” Chamberlin said.

Strengthening Business Leadership

Businesses on the corridor have also lacked the capacity to drive changes on 52nd Street. Throughout 2012, LISC supported the SCI-West Corridors Connect program, linking business association leaders from commercial corridors in West Philadelphia to training and assistance to help strengthen their organizations and bring new businesses and customers to their corridors.

Leaders from 52nd Street, including Williams, participated in the process, bringing back valuable information to inform their work. The street’s primary business association, the 52nd Street Business Development Corporation (or BDC) is now more equipped to fulfill its mission: beautify the corridor, attract a more diverse mix of businesses, reverse the perception of 52nd street as being unsafe, decrease blight, improve relations with street vendors, and promote the corridor as a whole.

After all, 52nd street is only making a dent in the market it has – it could be a regional corridor, said Gauthier. “It is a corridor that has huge potential in terms of its market, and this work will help it to get there.”

Championing the Whole Commercial Corridor

For all of the effort put forward by institutions and agencies at the city level, ultimately you need people who understand the context on the ground, who relentlessly bring people together, and who have a stake in making change happen. And you need organizations like the 52nd Street BDC and CDC who can own projects and push them along.

station diner

“The façade work is an actual intervention. It signals new life. It’s exciting to see things actually changing,” said Gauthier, “but imagine once these organizations get stronger, and they are a steady presence and can act as stewards for 52nd street and can connect with the community and focus on a number of different efforts. Then even more can happen – with respect to business attraction, safety, beautification.” This is what LISC’s commercial corridor work is all about: empowering the business leaders and organizations to move revitalization efforts forward.

As for the businesses old and new, it ultimately comes down to increasing sales and revenue by attracting more customers. But to do that, everyone has to work together to improve the whole district. Thankfully, business leaders like Williams have learned this lesson. “In the future, we are looking at promoting the corridor as a whole,” he said, “instead of just our individual businesses.”

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Urban Remix: Residents and area stakeholders join planners & designers in re-imagining 46th and Market Street

December 12, 2012
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

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.”

One design team looked to conenct open spaces in the area. Photo by Mark Garvin

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.

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 advisors. Photo by Dominic Mercier

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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 contributed their local knowledge to the charrette process. Photo by Mark Garvin

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 represented the Mill Creek Community Partnership at the charrette. Photo by Mark Garvin

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.

Corridors Connect program empowers Business Associations to “Make own destiny”

December 10, 2012

Brian Higgins, owner of Powelton Pizza on Lancaster Avenue, resisted joining a Business Association (BA) for the first 14 years he was in business. Now Higgins is advocating for a “Super BA,” a coalition of Business Associations representing seven of the commercial corridors in West Philadelphia.

What changed? The past two years, Higgins admits, have been transformative to say the least. “When I bought the business, I was just interested in running the business,” he said. “I never really saw the bigger picture of, ‘If everything around me is successful, I’ll be successful.’”

Higgins said he learned this lesson after a series of changes: purchasing a property on his corridor, joining a Business Association, and participating in the Corridors Connect program this past year.

Higgins was one of four leaders from Lancaster Avenue in Corridors Connect. They joined 20 or so other business leaders representing Business Associations on seven commercial corridors: Baltimore Ave, Lancaster Ave, 60th St, 52nd St, 48th & Spruce Sts, 45th & Walnut Sts, and 40th St. The program facilitated conversations between these BA leaders and business consultants, academics, business district leaders from across Philadelphia, national commercial corridor experts, and policy advocates. The Enterprise Center’s Retail Resource Network provided technical assistance to the BAs and administered the program, with training support and certification from Drexel and funding from SCI-West and LISC.

corridorconnectdinner_Lancaster

Lancaster Avenue was one of seven corridors to send leaders to participate in the Corridors Connect program.

What Higgins learned through these exchanges opened his eyes to the important roles BAs play in helping their corridors – and their surrounding neighborhoods – flourish. “The Corridors Connect program has been very empowering,” he said. “Some of the things we’ve discussed, we learned to take back to our corridor to help other businesses move in and grow, in a nurturing process.”

But more than equip Higgins and his BA with the knowledge, resources, tools, and networks to drive change on his corridor (he has an ambitious vision for Lancaster Avenue), the Corridors Connect program has instilled in him a profound respect for collaboration. “I’d like to see it continue, even if we just continue to meet and share our struggles and our progress with the other corridors,” he said. “I think its important that we continue the friendships and the relationships that we started to establish. And that we continue to support each other.”

This process of “empowerment” was both messy and difficult. Higgins met financial troubles when he first purchased and renovated his building in 2009. This made it even more complicated than usual to think about anything outside of his business. “My general contractor failed to pay two subcontractors, so I was out that money. That was at the worst possible time, at the downturn of the economy,” he recalled. “But we hung in there, came out on other side. And we’re doing really well today.”

Once Higgins had earned back some of the money he lost, he realized that participating in the BA may help attract more business in the long run. George Stevens from Lancaster Avenue 21st Century Business Association (LA21) was persistent and kept asking Higgins to join the BA. “The more I had a stake, when I bought the building and became more of a stakeholder, I realized the upside of joining the business association,” Higgins said. He finally joined LA21.

IMG_0813

Higgins decided to be a leader in his business association on Lancaster Avenue after purchasing the building that now houses Powelton Pizza.

Through LA21, Higgins learned of the Corridors Connect program and he was asked to step up as a leader and representative of the BA.

The BAs met once a month in a corner classroom at Drexel University, from 1 to 5 on Wednesday afternoons. It was hard to find a time that worked for every business owner, given everyone’s busy schedule, but most of the corridors found someone to attend each meeting.

They tackled organizational governance first, looking at how to assemble a business association board, how to apply for nonprofit 501(c)(3) status, and how to set up bylaws, schedule regular meetings, and hold elections. Some of the BAs lacked any organizational infrastructure whatsoever. LA21 happened to be a relatively well-organized group, with “a foundation for success,” says Higgins, including monthly meetings, regular seminars for businesses, and an active board. Higgins was able to share these ideas with other groups such as the Spruce Street BA, who has since adopted regular and consistent monthly meetings.

Early in the program, the corridors also took time to share their challenges. “I realized, by hearing what goes on in other corridors, that Lancaster Ave. is not alone in our struggles to come up with an identity and to make a successful corridor,” Higgins said. Now he was finding common ground with businesses from other corridors, too, and particularly other BA leaders as they worked to promote their corridors in the face of economic decline, vacancy, redundant retail offerings, crime, and low foot traffic.

One of the most useful components of the program was the market report generated for each West Philadelphia corridor. The reports showed the BAs how much “leakage” their area suffered from – how many dollars neighbors were spending outside of the neighborhood. The BAs could also get a good idea of the demand for different businesses, products, and services, which helped them to market the corridor to specific businesses. “It was extremely helpful seeing our corridor and University City as the numbers that companies look at,” Higgins said.

This data, combined with training on “managing the retail mix,” really changed how Higgins thought of his role at the BA. At first, he thought it was controversial for a BA to limit what kinds of new businesses they would allow on their corridors. “Is it really my right? Who am I to say, ‘You can’t open a check cashing place here?’ I would have said, ‘No, it’s not my responsibility,’ beforehand. It’s been through the program that I have come to understand that it is my responsibility. It would be doing them a disservice by allowing them to open, and I am doing every other business that is already in existence a disservice by allowing them to open.”

Ultimately, a better mix of different kinds of businesses, of complimentary (instead of competitive) goods and services, winds up attracting more customers to the corridor and generating more revenue for all businesses. “If I want to see a successful corridor, as everybody does, we need a diverse mix of businesses,” Higgins said.

With this greater sense of responsibility, knowledge about what makes corridors successful, and market data showing the supply and demand for different businesses, LA21 is now working to “manage its retail mix,” or generally control what kinds of new businesses are welcome on the corridor. Higgins explained, “We’re starting to formulate a vision, help bring in other businesses, help establish the corridor and not allow it to run amock with people who want to open another hair salon, pizza shop, or check cashing business. There’s already too many of them.” LA21 has already opposed one entrepreneur who recently wanted to open a check cashing business on Lancaster Ave, using the market data as evidence to back up their position.

It’s not easy for a struggling corridor to turn away businesses. Many of the BAs struggle with attracting businesses on their corridor to join and to pay their membership dues. Corridors Connect invited BAs to consider their suite of services for businesses. Rather than assume everyone wants to join for the sake of joining, or that all members need to attend meetings, consultants recommended that the BAs focus their efforts on providing real, tangible services that businesses want and need. For example, LA21 is considering offering free wi-fi hot spots for one year to businesses that join LA21 as new members. In addition, they are working to promote the Lancaster Ave. corridor as a whole.

Leaders from Philadelphia’s exemplary business associations, such as the Chestnut Hill Business Association and the East Passyunk Business Improvement District, pointed to their events as a key strategy for attracting customers to the corridor. Baltimore Ave. in West Philly shared their approach to the Dollar Stroll, which attracted thousands of people to Baltimore Ave. and is one reason 10 new restaurants have opened on the corridor in the last 5 years. “It’s going to be up to us to drive the Avenue,” Higgins shared, “but we can go out and start raising money and holding events, promoting it as Lancaster Ave., just to try and drive traffic to Lancaster Ave. There were good lessons for how to do that.”

These presentations, combined with visits to a few corridors, set the stage for the BAs to create a vision for the future of their districts. Higgins explained his vision: “We would like Lancaster to be well-lit, similar to Baltimore Ave., with streetscape lights, businesses open until midnight, having a safe pedestrian environment, having trolleys running through our corridor, and bringing in some bigger, more established retail to anchor Lancaster Ave. and give it an identity. We’re just starting to establish that identity, and it’s about taking that identity further.”

Small grants invited the BAs in the Corridors Connect Program to really prioritize and think about taking small concrete steps toward their vision. On Lancaster Ave, the $3,000 grant translated to less than $1 per linear foot. “In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t go very far,” said Higgins, “but the best grant given is lessons learned, not the money.”

Groups were able to use this grant money in different ways, depending on the needs of the corridor. The BAs filed 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status paperwork, hosted corridor-wide promotional events, developed marketing materials, and created websites for their corridors, among other projects. Ultimately, these small projects helped the BAs meet some of their fundamental goals, such as attracting new members and bringing more customers to their corridors. Higgins summed up the program’s ultimate message to BAs: “You can build your own destiny. We can’t do it for you. You’re not alone, here are some resources.”

The BAs were also challenged to consider throwing their money together into a larger pot, to be used for a collective project impacting all of the corridors. Higgins liked this idea, but the group couldn’t reach an agreement. The differences between the corridors meant they had slightly different priorities for their next steps. At the very least, this discussion pushed the BAs to think about ways of remaining connected beyond the program.

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Bringing the ingredients of corridor and neighborhood development together is kind of like making the perfect pizza pie.

“As we move forward, what I would really like to see is establishing a larger business association,” Higgins shared with the group during the final training session. “If we need something out here, going to City Hall as 10 businesses, we don’t have a lot of pull. But as West Philly Business Alliance with 5 or 6 corridors tied into it, and maybe 150 businesses, we have a lot more pull.”

It’s a huge leap, moving from focusing on your own business, job, home, or family to taking responsibility and leadership to drive change in your neighborhood and city. But it’s worth the risk. And, you don’t have to do it alone.

Higgins used to think that he had to attend only to his business and “force success outward,” but he realized that was an impossible undertaking. LA21 and Corridors Connect invited him to take a new role in helping Lancaster Avenue to be successful. “As I’ve gotten older, I’d like to think I’ve gotten a little wiser,” Higgins said. “It’s easier to help everybody else around you succeed, in order for you to succeed.”

Spruce Street Aims to Attract More Local Shopping with City Funds, Continued Team Effort

December 6, 2012

Neighbors and businesses are looking to attract more foot traffic and customers to the commercial corridor at 48th and Spruce Streets in West Philadelphia.

Most recently, Garden Court Community Association (GCCA) and The Enterprise Center CDC were successful in their application for $9,000 from the Philadelphia Commerce Department to implement strategies from the GCCA’s Business District Plan via marketing, beautification and placemaking strategies. Specifically funds will be used for purchase and installation of planters, banners, lighting, and fence screens along the corridor, in addition to marketing materials to promote corridor businesses.

City grants look to spruce up the Spruce Street Corridor.

At the heart of the Garden Court neighborhood in West Philadelphia, the Spruce Street corridor extends from 47th to 49th Street along Spruce and includes part of 48th Street. Businesses along the corridor currently serve a broad cross-section of nearby residents, which include long-time homeowners, as well as newer and younger renters. But according to market research, the area’s residents are doing a significant majority of their shopping outside the neighborhood.

GCCA and TEC are working with the Spruce Street Business Association (BA) to change that.

They have worked together to improve the beauty and safety of the corridor, invite a more diverse mix of businesses, and help market the corridor and its existing businesses. With this most recent award from the City, the collaboration looks to encourage more residents to spend their dollars in the neighborhood. Keeping dollars in the community will ultimately help the businesses thrive, and will contribute to further revitalization of the corridor and surrounding neighborhoods.

So far, the collaboration has led a number of projects on the corridor and has attracted grants to further this work.

For example, the group engaged stakeholders in a comprehensive plan for the corridor, the Garden Court Business District Plan. In addition, façade grants from the city were used to improve signage and beautify storefronts as well as attract businesses to join the Spruce Street BA. Additional façade grants would help the BA attract even more members while also improving the corridor.

Barkan Park sits at the West end of the Spruce Street corridor.

Businesses currently on the corridor include a number of restaurants, including Accu Pizza, New Harvest, Great Taste, Aladdin Pizza, Garden Court Eatery, J&P Seafood, and Baltimore Crab and Seafood. In addition to these, some basic amenities include a laundromat, a Meineke Car Care Center, and two dollar discount stores. A chiropractor, Dr. John Rock, and a law office, Shatzer & Sheridan also call the corridor home. Barkan Park anchors the corridor at the west end at 50th and Spruce, and Lea Elementary sits on the eastern edge at 48th.

With the opening of the Center for Culinary Enterprises (CCE), a once-vacant supermarket on 48th Street now houses four commercial kitchens and a food enterprise incubator and is the future home of three neighborhood restaurants. One restaurant will feature Pakistani cooking, another Caribbean cuisine, and the last one Ethiopian fare. The Enterprise Center CDC, with some early financing and support from LISC, was able to bring this innovative project to fruition over the past few years.

A vacant supermarket was renovated to house the Center for Culinary Enterprises (CCE), a food enterprise incubator, including four commercial kitchens.

Leaders from the Spruce Street BA also participated in the Corridors Connect program, which connected them with other business leaders in West Philadelphia, as well as knowledge and best practices from other successful corridors in the city. The Enterprise Center’s Retail Resource Network partnered with SCI-West, LISC, and Drexel University to engage West Philadelphia business associations in this program. In addition, TEC’s Retail Resource Network has worked to support the corridor through technical assistance and fundraising.

Funds from the City will leverage all of these prior and ongoing investments to help the district prosper: GCCA’s Business District Plan, storefront improvement grants, training of the Spruce Street Business Association leadership in the Corridors Connect program, and the impact of the new CCE.

With the purchase and installation of new banners, lighting, planters, fence screens, and marketing materials for businesses, the collaborative hopes to encourage residents to spend their dollars at these small local businesses. This will ultimately help the neighborhood and its retail center to flourish.

The Center for Culinary Enterprises (CCE) will also house three neighborhood restaurants.

If you live nearby – or even if you don’t – check out Spruce Street’s restaurant and retail options. By becoming a regular neighborhood customer, you can support the team effort of GCCA, Spruce Street BA, TEC, SCI-West, and the City. And be on the look out for the exciting changes on the corridor!