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Cascade: No. 65, Spring/Summer 2007

Reviving Commercial Corridors

Commercial corridors in Philadelphia are as different as the neighborhoods that surround them. Consider the three corridors profiled in this issue: 5th and Lehigh streets, Germantown Avenue, and Baltimore Avenue. Nonprofits have focused on revitalizing these corridors and, since 2002, they have been funded by Philadelphia Local Initiatives Support Corporation.

Fifth and Lehigh Streets, North Philadelphia

The Hispanic Association of Contractors and Enterprises (HACE) has focused on revitalizing the 5th and Lehigh streets commercial corridor, more commonly known as El Centro de Oro. The corridor, a 10-block area in the Fairhill section of Philadelphia, is known as the business, arts, and cultural center of Philadelphia’s Latin American community.

HACE’s goal has been to make the corridor a destination for residents and visitors from around the Delaware Valley, and it has been capitalizing on the rich heritage and culture of the neighborhood. HACE has developed over 30,000 square feet of office and retail space along the corridor since 1985, and the majority of the abandoned properties have been restored. HACE’s priorities have included addressing vacant and abandoned properties and providing technical assistance to business owners.

HACE has worked with government officials, local businesses, residents, and other community groups to host cultural events on the corridor, sponsor trolley tours, and create murals. For example, work by local artists is showcased at various businesses one Friday night each month at a Noche de Arte event and there is an annual neighborhood festival called Feria del Barrio.

HACE bought this building on 5th Street in 2003 and renovated the façade in 2005 by adding mosaic artwork to highlight the Latin-American culture of the neighborhood. HACE expects to lease the building to an artisan this summer.

In 1997, HACE started its own version of the Main Street program with funding from the Philadelphia Department of Commerce and the Pennsylvania Downtown Center. In 2003, HACE was awarded a $100,000 neighborhood planning grant from Wachovia Regional Foundation to identify key problems of the corridor and the surrounding neighborhood. Most recently, the corridor was designated to receive city and state Main Street funding, and HACE received a $750,000 five-year implementation grant from Wachovia Regional Foundation to implement a neighborhood development plan that includes revitalizing commercial and residential sections of the neighborhood.

Guillermo “Bill” Salas Jr., HACE’s president and co-founder, said there have been both successes and challenges in the revitalization process. Salas said a challenge has been attracting younger residents to shop at area businesses, instead of at malls and other shopping venues. Other challenges have been providing off-street parking for shoppers and expanding the business mix along the corridor. On the other hand, Salas said, “Two major successes have been the corridor’s ability to attract people from other areas of Philadelphia and surrounding counties who want to experience Latin culture, and the local community’s recognition that the corridor has economic vitality.”

For information, contact Cesar Santiago of HACE at (215) 426-4990 or csantiago@hacecdc.org; www.hacecdc.org/commerce.htm

Germantown Avenue, Mt. Airy

Mt. Airy, a neighborhood known nationally for its history of racial integration, includes a 13-block commercial corridor on Germantown Avenue. The neighborhood is primarily middle-class but has a mixture of housing stock that fosters a degree of socioeconomic diversity. Mt. Airy lies between middle- to upper-income Chestnut Hill and low- to moderate-income Germantown. Both Chestnut Hill and Germantown also have commercial areas along Germantown Avenue.

The Mt. Airy corridor is composed of a historical/tourist section, a health and home service section, and an arts, entertainment, and theater section. Mt. Airy USA has been working to revitalize the corridor and the surrounding neighborhood since 1980. In 1999, it introduced a comprehensive commercial corridor revitalization effort called The Avenue Project.

Farah Jimenez, executive director of Mt. Airy USA, explained that there are clear stages to any revitalization process and the Germantown Avenue corridor effort has followed these steps: “First, one needs to focus on cleaning the corridor and making it safe, then one must work with business owners to improve their façades, and finally one should improve the streetscape. Also, the first to come are the service-sector businesses, such as daycare centers, accounting firms, insurance companies, and hair and nail salons. Next, are restaurants and last is the retail.”

The owners of Groben’s Seafood on Germantown Avenue in Mt. Airy renovated the façade of the building in 2004 with a grant from Mt. Airy USA. Groben’s has been in existence in different locations along Germantown Avenue since 1877.

Mt. Airy USA has received city and state Main Street funds and $3 million for streetscape improvements from the U.S. and Pennsylvania transportation departments, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, and the Philadelphia Department of Commerce. The nonprofit has also been approved for a Neighborhood Transformation Initiative grant.

Jimenez noted that an important source of funding has been the City of Philadelphia’s CDC tax credit program, from which the nonprofit receives $100,000 per year for 10 years from Rittenhouse Claridge LLP to support its economic development work, including The Avenue Project. In return, Rittenhouse Claridge receives a credit of up to $100,000 each year against its Philadelphia business privilege tax obligation. Mt. Airy USA has used these funds to create its commercial real estate development department, which recently acquired and rehabilitated four historic buildings for a mixed-use development project called Winston Commons.

Local business owners and residents have made financial contributions and volunteered for advisory committees. From 2003 to 2005, area merchants donated $60,000 annually, which enabled a three-member, full-time crew to clean and refurbish the corridor. The East and West Mt. Airy Neighborhood Associations and the Mt. Airy Business Association have also supported the commercial corridor revitalization efforts.

According to Mt. Airy USA, there has been $35 million in capital investment in the last seven years, including the completion of a supermarket, community bank (Valley Green Bank), medical facility, senior housing, nursing education center, and two Mt. Airy USA development projects. In addition, nearly 35,000 square feet of office and retail space has been constructed along the corridor since 1999.

Jimenez noted that her organization faces several challenges, including convincing some business owners to take advantage of a façade grant program and finding enough funding to continually support the operational aspects of the program. On the other hand, she said: “The residents and businesses have come together in a collaborative effort to revitalize not only the commercial corridor, but also the surrounding neighborhood.”

Mt. Airy USA is leading an effort to create a business improvement district (BID). In a BID, business and property owners pay mandatory fees that fund cleaning and improvements to the area.

For information, contact Cicely Peterson Mangum of Mt. Airy USA at (215) 844-6021 or cpmangum@mtairyusa.org; www.mtairyusa.org.

Baltimore Avenue, University City

Vientiane Café, a restaurant on Baltimore Avenue that features Laotian and Thai cuisine, opened four years ago. The owner received a matching grant from UCD for façade improvements, an awning, lighting, and design work.

The University City neighborhood in West Philadelphia is home to many of the city’s colleges and universities, hospitals, and medical and technology centers and has a diverse group of residents, ranging from immigrants to college students and faculty. University City District (UCD) was formed in 1997 to improve the safety and cleanliness of a 2.2-square-mile area and to increase its vitality.1 As part of its neighborhood initiatives, UCD has focused on revitalizing the Baltimore Avenue corridor from 45th to 50th streets.2

Safety has been a focal point in the revitalization process, and UCD has increased residential and commercial lighting along the corridor. It has worked with business owners to complete façade improvements and stained-glass window restorations. UCD has also worked with the Philadelphia Horticultural Society to develop landscaping plans for traffic islands. In addition, UCD recognized that bicycling was a common mode of transportation and recreation in the area and installed 85 bike racks throughout University City.

UCD’s funding sources include the city’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, William Penn Foundation, Philadelphia Department of Commerce, Citizens Bank, State Farm Insurance, the Coleman Foundation, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of the Sciences, Drexel University, and the Science Center.

Wendell described the successes and challenges that UCD has faced in the revitalization process. A challenge has been organizing the local businesses in a formal manner, since there is no business association. A success has been the Dock Street Brewery, a restaurant and brewery due to open in 2007 on 50th Street and Baltimore Avenue. UCD is hopeful that this restaurant will become an anchor for the Baltimore Avenue corridor.

For information, contact Carolyn Hewson of UCD at (215) 243-0555, ext. 247, or carolyn@ucityphila.org; www.ucityphila.org.

  • 1 The area is a special services district. UCD receives voluntary contributions from University City businesses, institutions, and individuals to support its work in the district.
  • 2 UCD also works with People’s Emergency Center in revitalizing the Lancaster Avenue corridor. UCD focuses on the Lancaster Avenue corridor from 34th to 38th streets.

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