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Reading Viaduct Park -- and four other exciting projects -- get green light

"All our childhood memories go back to a park story, a recreation center story, or a library story," argued Mayor Michael Nutter at a March 16 press conference at the Fairmount Park Horticulture Center. It was an appropriate sentiment since he was announcing a $11 million investment in the Fairmount Park Conservancy and its Reimagining the Civic Commons initiative.

The Knight Foundation, with a commitment of $5.4 million, and the William Penn Foundation, bringing $5.5 million to the table, are teaming up to provide these funds, which will in turn support five major civic projects, some of which have held the public imagination for decades.

The dollars, Nutter said, would further the city’s goal of making "Philadelphia the number one green city in the United States of America." The common denominator of all the projects, he added, is that they will revitalize and transform underutilized, under-resourced spaces.

Speakers joining Nutter were Fairmount Park Conservancy Executive Director Kathryn Ott Lovell; Michael DiBerardinis, Deputy Mayor for Environmental & Community Resources and Parks and Recreation Commissioner; William Penn Executive Director Laura Sparks; and Carol Coletta, vice president for community and national initiatives at the Knight Foundation.

According to Sparks, the investment will continue to build Philadelphia’s profile as a world-class destination for "shared spaces that a diverse population can enjoy." Partly because of our booming Millennial population, "Philadelphia is the ideal national laboratory" for civic space experiments like these, and foundations with a nationwide lens are recognizing it.

Reimagining the Civic Commons, according to the Conservancy, will "explore whether reinventing and connecting public spaces as a network of civic assets will help cities attract and keep talented workers," boost the economy, help get residents more engaged, and "begin to level the playing field between more affluent communities and those in need."

Instead of competing for funds, organizations involved will be able to collaborate with each other.

The conference included details on the five selected projects.

A collaboration between Audubon Pennsylvania and Outward Bound will help create The Discovery Center in East Fairmount Park to inspire leadership development and environmental stewardship near the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood.

The Conservancy dollars will also finally make the Reading Viaduct Rail Park a reality, repurposing it as a green public space that will rise from ground level to cross three city streets. Center City District and Friends of the Rail Park will join together to make it happen.

The Bartram’s Mile Trail Project along the lower Schuylkill River is part of the region’s planned 750-mile Circuit Trail Network. It will be tackled thanks to a partnership between Philadelphia Parks & Recreation and the Schuylkill River Development Corporation.

The funds will also ensure the completion of Lovett Memorial Library and Park in Mt. Airy, with support from the Free Library and Mt. Airy U.S.A.

Finally, the dollars will transform an underutilized piece of West Fairmount Park into the Centennial Commons, a family-friendly playspace for the Parkside community. The Fairmount Park Conservancy will helm this project.

Stay tuned for more from Flying Kite about the plans for these individual projects.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Sources: Mayor Michael Nutter; Kathryn Ott Lovell, the Fairmount Park Conservancy; Laura Sparks, the William Penn Foundation, and Carol Coletta, the Knight Foundation. 

 

Stinger Square in Grays Ferry is getting a $500,000 upgrade

The March 20 groundbreaking for Germantown’s Vernon Park upgrade, part of a city-wide initiative called Green 2015, had to be rescheduled when the first day of spring brought an all-day snowstorm. But Stinger Square Park in the Grays Ferry section of the city had better luck with its own Green 2015 groundbreaking in late February. According to Parks and Rec First Deputy Commissioner for Parks and Facilities Mark Focht, everything is on track.

Green 2015 is happening in collaboration with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, the Philadelphia Water Department and the Fairmount Park Conservancy.

"We want to complete the improvements at Stinger prior to opening the pool around July 1," Focht says of the estimated $505,000 upgrade. "The pool brings a lot of kids in, so we want the park done prior to that."

The Water Department is funding part of the project, spending $220,000 for two rain gardens that will go in on the northeast and northwest corners of the square. They will also contribute to some new landscaping.

"This is about managing stormwater from the adjacent streets," explains Focht. "So it’s pulling stormwater from the streets into the rain garden and it’s using the plantings at the entrance of the park to treat the stormwater."

The rest of the dollars are coming from Councilman Kenyatta Johnson’s office, which is providing $150,000; Parks and Rec has committed $110,000 and will cover any extra costs up to the project's full estimated budget.

The renovations will also include concrete replacement, refurbished seating, new picnic tables, and square game tables marked with grids so they’re ready for chess, checkers, backgammon or whatever neighbors might want to play. In addition, the work will remove existing dead trees and plant new ones to provide shade for park users.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Mark Focht, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation

 

Constitution Health Plaza adds medical care to Passyunk revitalization

A "dinosaur" of a hospital on the corner of Broad Street and Passyunk Avenue is getting a new life as part of the ongoing revitalization of the area. Purchased three years ago by St. Agnes MOB LLC., a small investment firm, the former St. Agnes Hospital (a 150-year-old building) is now Constitution Health Plaza. According to leasing and marketing director Elizabeth Daly, 18 tenants are already installed in the four-building complex and the site's occupancy is ahead of schedule.

Constitution Plaza is part of a larger trend in healthcare. Over twenty hospitals closed last year in New Jersey alone, but complexes like this one -- that offer a variety of independent practitioners in one rehabbed space -- are beginning to take the floundering hospitals' place.

"The idea is one-stop shopping for the community, for any of your medical needs," explains Daly. "Somebody will be able to come to one building and go to different practitioners."

Constitution Health Plaza takes facilities management, security, utilities, real estate concerns, and other operations off its tenants' plates, with the aim of providing more cost-efficient medical care just in time for the influx of patients newly insured under the Affordable Care Act.

Plaza residents include a location of the Children’s Hospital of PhiladelphiaKindred Hospital, and specialists practicing dermatology to nephrology to psychiatry. And the facility is joint-commission certified, notes Daley -- the Kindred location has acute care inpatient capabilities, so a critically ill person can stay longer than 24 hours. While there are a lot of targeted options and the building is currently at about 75 percent occupancy, the complex doesn’t yet offer adult primary-care services. It’s a provider the plaza would definitely like to attract, along with dental care and an orthodontist.

The renovation plans kept some of the building’s original marble, but included modern upgrades such as an atrium with plenty of natural light, a fresh lobby and a security desk. The different floors are color-coded for ease of navigation, especially important for patients who might not speak English; the facility also boasts an attached 425-car parking garage.

A multi-million dollar exterior upgrade added outdoor security cameras, extensive new lighting, and a large high-definition video signage board advertising the health plaza's services as well as other community happenings.

"On the exterior we really want it to be a landmark along Broad Street," says Daly. "South Philadelphia is very unique neighborhood, and it’s pretty exciting for us to be right in the middle of where the revitalization is taking place…it’s complemented each other: [the]] investment in the building and people’s enthusiasm for the East Passyunk corridor."

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Elizabeth Daly, Constitution Health Plaza

Vernon Park breaks ground on a $1.2 million upgrade

A major upgrade is coming for Germantown Avenue's Vernon Park -- and it should be completed by this summer. On Friday, March 20, 8th District Councilwoman Cindy Bass will join Deputy Major Michael Diberardinis and representatives from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, the Philadelphia Water Department, and the Fairmount Park Conservancy to break ground on the renovations.

Green 2015 (which launched in 2012), the project’s umbrella, is "an initiative to upgrade the quality of the public environment at our smaller neighborhood parks and recreation centers," explains Mark Focht, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation’s first deputy commissioner for parks and facilities. "We’ve worked really closely with members of [City] Council to have them select sites in their districts that have great citizen involvement, but needed some help or support."

Improvements to Vernon Park will include better walkways, new play equipment and the addition of adult fitness equipment so parents or grandparents can work out while the youngsters play. The make-over will also feature new benches and picnic tables.

"The other significant thing is we’re completely upgrading the lighting in the entire park, so all the paths will be re-lit with very high-quality lighting," says Focht. And compared to other Green 2015 participants (including Grays Ferry’s Stinger Square Park, another renovation currently underway), "Vernon is a little unique because we have these three major monuments in it…they’re great architectural and sculptural features in the park."

The current upgrade will include cleaning and new lighting for these landmarks.

The $1.2 million dollars for the project came mostly from the 8th District council office, to the tune of $850,000, with Parks and Recreation furnishing the remaining $350,000. The work will take place throughout April, May and June, and will not restrict access to Center in the Park or Vernon House. Only about half of the park will need to be closed completely, around the northern and western edges where the current playground is.

"We’ve committed to the Councilwoman and the neighbors that it’ll be done in time for their jazz concert series" in July, Focht insists.

The Vernon Park groundbreaking ceremony will take place on Friday, March 20 from 2 - 3 p.m.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Mark Focht, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation

Is a convenience store makeover in Bella Vista a missed opportunity?

On February 10, a large crowd gathered at the Palumbo Recreation Center for a Bella Vista Neighbors Association (BVNA) zoning meeting. On the docket: a potential make-over for the convenience store at Eighth and Bainbridge Streets. The "contemplated application," according to BVNA, would turn the current store into a "Foodery-style eat-in, sit-down restaurant with artisan beer, which would retain some of the current retail use.”

The potential developer didn’t respond to a request for comment, but BVNA Zoning Committee member Jason Lempieri, who was on hand for the meeting, spoke with Flying Kite about the plans, and their limitations.

In short, when he looks at the stone-and-siding mock-up of the new store and its proposed business plan -- which wouldn’t alter the existing one much except for the addition of "artisan beer" to the shelves -- "I yawn," he says. With a surfeit of nearby stores and restaurants where locals can grab a beer, "How are you competing? What makes you different?" he asks.

That might be the case, but the neighborhood does have a dearth of craft-centric bottle shops. Lempieri emphasizes that neighbors do appreciate the store’s current proprietor and the customer service he provides -- many came out to explicitly support the upgrade -- but argues that the surface-level parking lot (very convenient to the business-owner, who wants people to pull in easily for sandwiches and coffee) has been a hazard for a long time.

"Parents say, 'I’m walking my kids and the cars are backing up and it’s really unnerving,' and this is true," he explains. Without a raised curb and sidewalk between the street and the parking lot, "You can pull up wherever you want," and it’s not safe for pedestrians.

There’s no word on whether the proposed redevelopment would remedy this issue, but Lempieri has his own dream for the site, if the proprietor was willing to step a little further from the current business model.

The property is desirable because of that parking lot area, but "you can do more than just parking," he insists. In a perfect world, a new business offering artisan beers alongside the usual food and snack items could convert that space into a beer garden with relatively little up-front investment. That would really be something new for the neighborhood.

Lempieri wishes Philly businesses were in the habit of thinking bigger. Will the ultimate redevelopment of the store result in a new beer garden or something else unique and desirable for the neighborhood?

"I highly doubt it," he admits. "But the neighborhood should demand it."

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Jason Lempieri, Bella Vista Neighbors Association

 

A transatlantic collaboration reimagines North Philly's Lehigh Viaduct

Drexel University's new Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation has launched an ambitious cross-continental educational partnership that imagines a new future for the Lehigh Viaduct in North Philadelphia. They are also tackling a neglected power station (built in the 1920s) and a largely vacant 300,000-square-foot building that covers almost 1,000 feet of waterfront.

The Lehigh Viaduct and these nearby buildings are the perfect focus for an intensive planning project, says Harris Steinberg, executive director of the Lindy Institute and a professor of architecture and interiors at Drexel's Westphal College. The largely abandoned sites have "a lot of connections with work that’s being done in this country as well as around the world, particularly in Europe, around repurposing former industrial infrastructure," he explains.

Steinberg, formerly of the University of Pennsylvania, has a lot of experience in this area. For the last fifteen years, he has worked with groups like PennPraxis on addressing the waterfront, including 2006-2007's Civic Vision for the Central Delaware public planning process, which engaged over 4,000 people in 13 months. That project included the power station and viaduct the Lindy Institute is focusing on now.

The planning process occurred right before Mayor Michael Nutter came into office, and his administration used that work to create a master plan in partnership with the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation.

The Lehigh Viaduct is a raised embankment connector that runs into the heart of North Philadelphia, from the Port Richmond rail yards to the Girard Avenue interchange at I-95. This overgrown industrial remnant is off-limits to the public. While the Conrail-owned track -- which currently has just one active rail line left -- is not likely to see significant redevelopment right away, Steinberg still insists it’s "a longer-term possibility" to compile a publicly accessible plan for the future.

That will be done via tours, charrettes and workshops, including “Creative Transformations: Lessons from Transatlantic Cities,” a free public discussion that took place at Moore College of Art on February 26. It featured a panel of local and international experts, and was hosted by Drexel, the William Penn Foundation and the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Fifteen students and two faculty members from Germany's TU Dortmund University recently arrived to collaborate with a group of urban design students from Drexel.

"Can it become an amenity as opposed to just an element that divides Port Richmond and Kensington?" asks Steinberg. He hopes the workshop events, running in late February and early March, will give "some more ideas on potential reuse with some economic viability to it. The high-level question we’re asking is how do you repurpose these industrial assets which are not easy to transform, but could have an incredible catalytic impact on the regeneration of those neighborhoods?" 

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Harris Steinberg, Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University

 

Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse activates long-vacant Kensington storefront

Temple University alum Ariell Johnson first started to imagine opening her dream business when the independent coffee shop across from her favorite comic book store closed down. That was over a decade ago, before she graduated in 2005 with a degree in accounting.

As a self-described "geeky" woman of color who loves comics, Johnson says she’s a rare breed. She got serious about opening Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse, her coffee shop/comic book store/community arts hub, in the last few years. She looked in a few different neighborhoods for the perfect spot, including Lancaster Avenue in West Philly and South Philly’s Point Breeze, before finding her 3,000-foot space at the corner of Frankford Avenue and Huntingdon Street.

Frankford's burgeoning arts corridor and mixed neighborhood demographic -- families, single young professionals, recent college grads, artists -- convinced Johnson it was the right place for Amalgam. And among a lot of "fun quirky little shops," tattoo parlors and galleries on the avenue, there still aren't any comic book stores.

"For what I’m doing, I thought it would be a great fit here," she explains.

Amalgam’s future home is a mixed-use building with apartments attached to a commercial space. Johnson says the latter has been standing empty for over ten years. Its history is unclear, but some of the leftover equipment they’ve found, along with an old painting abandoned there, hint that it had another life as an Italian restaurant. 

"We’re in the process of getting renovations done," notes Johnson. "The space is not nearly finished."

To that end, she’s running a crowdfunding campaign through March 3 with a basic goal of raising $5,000 and a dream goal of $30,000, which will help cover renovation of the plumbing, electrical and HVAC systems, as well as installing Amalgam’s coffee bar and kitchen. (If Amalgam can meet that crucial $5,000 goal, it’ll be guaranteed to receive those funds, plus any money raised beyond that.) 

Ultimately, Johnson, a Maryland native who now lives just one street away from her shop, will draw on a range of professional experience to make Amalgam a reality: her business and accounting know-how, a history in retail, and even experience as a barista and self-taught chef. The space will be a haven for comic-book lovers and the wider community, with places for browsing, sipping and snacking as well as conversation, book signings, film screenings and other events.

Johnson will carry industry staples like X-Men and The Flash, but is particularly dedicated to showcasing comics featuring women and people of color after years of being an ardent fan, but rarely seeing anyone who looked like her in the pages she loved.

"Not seeing yourself reflected in different forms of media is damaging," she explains, especially for children. "I want to actively fight against that."

Because of the variables of construction, Johnson says it’s too soon to know an exact date for Amalgam’s grand opening, but she hopes to have it up and running as soon as late spring.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Ariell Johnson, Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse

 

P'unk Burger opens on East Passyunk Avenue

Marlo and Jason Dilks, the owners of Philly's SliCE pizza restaurants, are branching out into burgers with P'unk Burger. The casual, cozy joint opened at 1823 East Passyunk Avenue on February 13. They've got burgers, fries and shakes, but they say the focus is on fresh food, not fast food.

According to Marlo, turnout at the surprisingly small 600-square-foot eatery has been great since their Valentine's weekend opening. So far, the place has only 26 seats (a newly made table will soon squeeze that total up to 30), and it’s first come, first served. Things are already getting hectic at dinnertime.

When she and her husband were beginning to consider opening a restaurant on East Passyunk, Dilks got an inside tip that the space’s former tenant, Chhaya Café, was looking to move. She didn’t wait, and secured the lease for P’unk while Chhaya (now at 1819 East Passyunk Avenue) was still there. (The building is next to the A Star is Born boutique, owned by Dilks’ family members.)

"We love the Avenue," says Dilks of setting up shop on the bustling strip. "I think it’s a vibrant area."

They nabbed the space last July, and spent several months remaking it. The color scene is gray and green, with signage
and décor made of reclaimed wood and salvaged metal from Brewerytown, and a restored and refinished front entrance.

Though the space is small, diners have a couple different seating options.

An arcade game table featuring over 50 games seats two up front in "P’unk Pasture," complete with game stools and a cow-print ceiling (proceeds from game play will go to a different charity each month), four other tables will seat a total of sixteen people, and a larger communal table seats 12.

"[It] took awhile not just to decorate, but we were in there making the burgers," explains Dilks. "We did a lot of aesthetics. We were fortunate we didn’t have to rush and open."

Just as important is the tasty and environmentally-conscious menu, featuring gluten-free and vegan options as well as organic, antibiotic-free, humanely raised grass-fed meat. Products from local suppliers include Vegan Commissary veggie burgers, bacon from 1732 Meats, Fishtown’s Little Babies Ice Cream, cheese from Claudios and DiBruno Bros., and bread from American Harvest Baking. The restaurant recycles its frying oil, and uses biodegradable/compostable cups and containers.

The menu includes beef, chicken, tuna, turkey and veggie burgers with an extensive list of toppings, sauces and cheeses, regular and sweet potato fries, salads, the full line of Maine Root sodas, and milkshakes.

P’unk is now open Sunday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., with plans in the next few weeks to extend Friday and Saturday hours until 3 a.m.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Marlo Dilks, P’unk Burger

Will Germantown's historic YWCA face demolition or redevelopment?

In January, all eyes were on the old YWCA at 5820 Germantown Avenue, bordering Vernon Park in Germantown. Despite a wealth of local affection for the building, whose use as a YWCA facility dates back to 1914, it may face demolition, and residents are anxiously asking what can be done to save it.

Despite its important place in the neighborhood's 20th century history, the building has been left to languish empty for years, damaged by vandalism and fires. The YMCA owned the building until 2006; then Germantown Settlement purchased the site, but no plans materialized. With the structure in steep decline, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA) brought the building to sheriff’s sale and acquired it in 2013.

Last fall, a request for proposals for the site drew a plan from just one interested developer: the Philly-based Mission First Housing Group, which would partner with Philly Office Retail to convert the building into 50 independent senior-living units, pending a state-administered federal tax subsidy (Mission First would retain sole ownership of the site.) But the PRA rejected the proposal last month.

"This issue is something that’s really important to people, so it brings out a lot of passions," said Germantown United CDC Board President Garlen Capita at a January 22 community meeting on the issue, held at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown.

The meeting drew a large crowd of concerned locals, and featured PRA Executive Director Brian Abernathy, Mission First Housing Group Director of Business Development Mark Deitcher, 8th District Councilwoman Cindy Bass and Philly Office Retail president Ken Weinstein as speakers.

By all counts, the condition of the building now means that it will cost more money to rehabilitate and re-use than it would to demolish and rebuild. Abernathy estimated the cost of stabilizing the structure at $3 million, and according to Deitcher, a Mission First assessment found that the 50,000-square-foot facility would cost $200 per square foot to restore.

Several speakers, including Bass and community members who took the microphone for a question-and-answer session, emphasized the importance of not rushing to take the first proposal to materialize for the site.

But Weinstein came out strongly in support of the Mission First proposal: "This project does not represent settling for what’s in front of us," he insisted.

For her part, the Councilwoman said two other developers had approached her with interest in the site after word of its possible demolition got out, but she declined to give any specifics.

GUCDC Executive Director Andy Trackman tells Flying Kite that they're still awaiting word on next steps for the old YWCA: nothing can move forward until the city’s Office of Licenses and Inspections surveys the site and makes its report.

Elliot Griffin, a spokesperson for Bass, says the councilwoman has scheduled meetings with stakeholders from City agencies about the structural soundness of the building.

So, when can the community expect the critical L&I report? Griffin can’t comment on the timing of a public announcement, but confirms that Bass expects to hear from L&I soon.

Community activist and W. Rockland Street Project leader Emaleigh Doley, who also spoke up at last month’s meeting, tells Flying Kite that the lack of discussion about the site prior to the news of its possible demolition bothered her.

"There should be conversation, but the manner in which this issue was raised exploited the threat of demolition…and takes full advantage of the neighborhood’s vulnerabilities," she says. "Even after leaving the meeting, I was left asking, what is really going on here?"

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Sources: Andy Trackman, GUCDC; Elliot Griffin, Councilwoman Cindy Bass; Emaleigh Doley, W. Rockland Street Project

 

An architecture award imagines Philly's urban future

One young Philadelphia architecture firm is reviving the history of some of our city’s most notable buildings, while also predicting the urban landscape of our future, all with one very unusual design that was never meant to be built in the first place.

In 2014 to celebrate its 200th birthday, the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, an extraordinary repository of our city’s history through architecture and design, opened its Looking Forward Architectural Competition to firms across the globe. The judges didn’t know what city or country entries were coming from, but selected Philadelphia’s Stanev Potts Architects, based on Arch Street in Center City, for the $5,000 first prize. (In 2013, the firm received AIA Philadelphia’s Philadelphia Emerging Architecture Award.)

The competition invited architects to look ahead to the year 2050 and imagine a replacement for the Athenaeum’s historic 1845 brownstone, a center for exhibitions, education and research, at 219 S. 6th Street. There were submissions from 46 professional firms and 42 student teams in 17 countries.

"We try to think of what the obvious thing would be and not do that," explains partner Petra Stanev. The firm was founded in 2004 and now has eight members. Their approach to a mix of residential and commercial work is "trying to see if there’s a different solution that hasn’t yet occurred, that might have higher merits."

Their winning design, titled "Philadelphia Grotesque Revisited," imagines a pair of towers encased in a pattern of transparent triangles of glass, with green space underneath and an underground vault for the Athenaeum’s collections.

"Center City is dense with housing, young businesses and award-winning schools as Philadelphia has become an innovation and design hub," explained the Stanev Potts team -- which included Ryan Lohbauer, Elizabeth Kreshet, Melissa Styer and Chun Wang -- in their concept statement. "With life becoming increasingly virtual, interest in physical artifacts, archived drawings, and preserved narratives flourishes."

"It gives us a chance to think differently about what we’re doing," says Stanev of the value of entering a contest for designs that won’t actually be built.

"Especially at the local level, it’s important to have that vision of what you want to see in the future and why you want to see it, in order for that conversation to take place in the public," adds Lohbauer.

The Stanev Potts design hearkens back to the pioneering ornamental spirit of late 19th century Philadelphia architects like Frank Furness and Willis Hale (of Divine Lorraine fame). These architects’ beautifully "flamboyant" buildings were met with total disdain from the era’s architectural critics, who called this Victorian trend "Philadelphia Grotesque" in columns titled "Architectural Aberrations."

"The tragedy about it was that kind of criticism basically removed any sort of protection for these buildings as they needed repairs, so we lost a lot of our most magnificent buildings," says Lohbauer. "If they were still here, they’d be treasures."

Honoring that history while looking toward the future of the city’s built environment is what their winning Athenaeum design was all about.

An exhibition of the Looking Forward entrants’ designs will be on display at the Athenaeum through February 14.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Sources: Petra Stanev and Ryan Lohbauer, Stanev Potts Architects

 

Mighty Writers poised to open a new Italian Market space

Last year, when Flying Kite checked in with Philly’s Mighty Writers, a largely volunteer-powered group helmed by director Tim Whitaker, it had just nabbed a $75,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, which it planned to put toward opening a brand-new location in the heart of the Italian Market. That space will house a bilingual program called El Futuro.

Mighty Writers, now in its fifth year of serving youth ages 7 to 17, opened its original space at 15th and Christian Streets, and then a second one at 39th and Lancaster Avenue. Its programming includes mentoring, homework help, after-school sessions, writing classes and SAT prep.

According to Whitaker, former editor of Philadelphia Weekly, Mighty Writers launched a bilingual roster specifically geared toward Philly’s Mexican-American community about two years ago. Attendance at the 15th and Christian location has been enthusiastic and now Mighty Writers is on the cusp of opening a new space in the Italian Market, to better serve participants right in their own neighborhood.

Mighty Writers is hoping to close this week on a building two blocks north of Washington Avenue on 9th Street. The one-story space boasts about 2,500 square feet, with plenty of room for a variety of programming and new offices. After a few renovations, the group hopes to welcome youngsters there as soon as late February.

"There will be workshops for all, though focusing mostly on the Mexican community," says Whitaker. Workshop leaders will teach in both Spanish and English. Currently, Mighty Writers has five full-time employees, two part-timers and dozens of volunteers.

There will also be a daily after-school academy from 3 - 6 p.m., evening writing workshops and additional programming on the weekends.

Whitaker is particularly excited about the new location, flanked by fruit stands, a fish market and racially diverse businesses.   

"It’s really right in the middle of everything, which adds a lot for the kids to write about, a lot for them to see," he says. "It just feels like it’s the right place."

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Tim Whitaker, Mighty Writers

Penn makes a major move with gorgeous new center for political science and economics

University of Pennsylvania architect David Hollenberg says the new Ronald O. Perelman Center for Political Science and Economics, slated to open in 2018 at 36th and Walnut Streets, is going to be "a very handsome treatment of a very handsome building."

Penn just announced its official approval of the new facility’s design after a year of working with Toronto-based architecture firm KPMB. The old nine-story West Philadelphia Title and Trust Company building at 133 S. 36th Street (built in the mid-1920s) will join with a brand-new addition to its north for a space totaling about 100,000 square feet. The new center will house Penn’s Political Science and Economics Departments, as well as six relocated academic and research centers.

"To a lot of folks, this is an important survivor of the West Philly commercial landscape," says Hollenberg of efforts to retain the original building’s look. "We’re very interested in preserving that remnant."

But it’s just the exterior of the building that Penn is holding on to.

"Most of the interior is going to be gutted; it’s really about the façade," explains Hollenberg.

The north-side addition isn’t just a new wing, either. It will be roughly the same size as the existing building, with a main entrance on 36th Street where the new and old structures meet. According to a statement from Penn, "the addition’s exterior palette of silver metal, frosted and clear glass is also designed to complement the historic limestone façade."

The six-story addition will be "an equal partner to a very distinguished historic building," Hollenberg predicts. And he says this is typical of the Penn architectural style, which instead of aiming for a single look across campus, strives to respect the unique aspects of existing buildings "that are the best of their time."

The architect points out that the building is also significant because of major shifts in Penn’s undergraduate population, most of which has been concentrated south of Walnut Street until now.

"This is the first building that will take a significant undergraduate academic function across Walnut Street," he says, noting that political science and economics are two of Penn’s most popular undergraduate majors. The daily traffic from those students will
"have a significant impact on that northern side of the campus."

The $77.6 million project is scheduled to break ground this December and be completed by spring of 2018. Hollenberg says the new facilities will be ready to welcome students and faculty for the fall semester of 2018.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: David Hollenberg, University of Pennsylvania

 

Germantown schoolyard aims to become a citywide model for play and sustainability

Three years ago, the nearly five-acre expanse of the John B. Kelly Elementary School grounds got the attention of the neighbors. The Kelly Green initiative, led by the Hansberry Garden and Nature Center in southwest Germantown and an enthusiastic coalition of volunteers, wanted to transform the barren grass-and-concrete lot into an educational, eco-friendly community space.

Now, according to project leader Dennis Barnebey, a Hansberry board member, the initiative is on the cusp of securing dollars from the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD). And thanks to a graduate class at Philadelphia University dedicating a semester to the project, they are also closing in on final plans for an affordable upgrade.

Kelly Green was jumpstarted in spring 2012 with a service grant from the Community Design Collaborative and a 2014 practicum at Philadelphia University that also focused on the site. But as it turned out, none of those plans were "shovel-ready." As Barnebey explains, they lacked specific construction details, measurements and precise cost estimates, and the estimates they had were far beyond the project’s fundraising power.

But the students at Philadelphia University "are convinced it doesn’t have to be that expensive," says Barnebey of the concrete plans the class will produce. They’ll capitalize on "the whole idea of naturalizing a space, as opposed to architecturally designing everything perfectly." That means a range of options, like building up hills for slides, sand areas for playing, and using a playground floor of crushed bark instead of an expensive porous soft-surface finish.

“For Philadelphia University, it’s an opportunity to get their hands on something real, not just in a book, and hopefully provide a model for other places," he adds. "They’re looking at ways this could be done affordably."

For now, thanks in part to volunteers from Penn State’s Master Gardener program, the site boasts a beautiful new student-planted garden with about fifteen beds for flowers and a huge range of vegetables. Local volunteers helped maintain the site over the summer, and last year, workers in a job-training program through Restorative Justice at the Mural Arts Program provided a new shed, picnic tables, and a garden fence with bird houses and butterfly boxes.

"Having that develop in the way that it has and seeing what can happen in that desert back there has helped change people’s minds [and] get more people on board," says Barnebey of the progress so far.

As for water management, the school site hosted a PWD representative in the first week of January, who, according to Barnebey, confirmed that Kelly Green is an ideal candidate for a Stormwater Management Incentive Program Grant. If they’re successful, that could mean up to $100,000 per eligible acre for new stormwater infrastructure, a boon for ongoing landscape efforts. 

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Dennis Barnebey, Kelly Green

 

Water Department sets its sights on greening and transit in Yorktown

Why stop at stormwater? The Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) is about to bring a total overhaul to the streets of Yorktown. With help from an $800,000 grant, the neighborhood is getting stormwater planters, new bus shelters, bike lanes, wider pedestrian islands and ten new ADA ramps.

PWD has been in conversation with the Yorktown Community Development Corporation and its partners since 2012 about the initiative, known as the Yorktown Green and Complete Streets project. They see it as a holistic effort that goes beyond greening. 

Ariel Ben-Amos, transportation liaison for PWD's Green Infrastructure Partnership Program, calls it the Water Department’s "triple bottom line." Adding a mile of bike lanes to the existing Philly network, as well as two new bus shelters (one at 11th and Girard, the other at 12th and Master), and 27 stormwater-catching planters along 12th and 13th Streets, "impacts people not only from an environmental perspective, but from a social perspective, and makes sense economically as well," he explains.

In addition to the investment in good stormwater infrastructure -- which helps relieve the city's over-burdened combined sewer system in compliance with the Clean Water Act -- the project will make it easier for people to walk, bike and access transit in the neighborhood, giving the whole area a boost. The new bike lanes will run on 11th and 13th Streets from Girard to Cecil B. Moore Avenues.

"One of the great things is that as you invest in neighborhood greening, you’re also investing in the homes and the values of the neighborhoods as well," adds Ben-Amos.

Jessica Noon, who manages the Green Infrastructure Partnership Program, says PWD knew the design it had "wasn’t something that we could fund on our own"; they applied for a grant through PennDOT and the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development’s Multimodal Transportation Fund. The $831,360 PWD received was a piece of $84 million distributed to 86 projects state-wide, and PWD will contribute an additional $300,000 of its own matching funds for the project.

While at this point it’s not possible to make any guarantees about the timeline for completion, Ben-Amos says PWD could begin construction as soon as August, with an early goal of completion by the end of 2015.

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Sources: Ariel Ben-Amos and Jessica Noon, Philadelphia Water Department

 

Over $8 million from the William Penn Foundation jump-starts region's trails

Creating a new trail is about more than just drawing up an idea and laying down the surface, says Chris Linn, who manages the Office of Environmental Planning at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC). But a grant from the William Penn Foundation -- $7 million over three years -- will enable DVRPC and its partners at the Circuit Coalition, a consortium of almost 70 organizations, including non-profits, foundations and various public agencies in the greater Philadelphia region, to move forward with ambitious plans for local public space.

Launched in 2012, the Circuit Coalition, which has already worked to build 300 miles of multi-use trails connecting urban and suburban centers to nearby parks and waterways, hopes to complete 450 more miles by the year 2040. (For a map of Circuit trails and their status, click here.)

According to a DVRPC statement, $1.6 million over three years from the William Penn Foundation will also go to Circuit partner Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, raising public awareness for the Circuit’s network of trails, which, when completed, will be "the most comprehensive regional trail network in the country," says Conservancy president Keith Laughlin.

Most of the DVRPC William Penn dollars will go toward engineering and design of new trails.

"Before any trail project can be constructed, you have to prepare engineering drawings, and they’re not cheap," says Linn.

They include things like grading, retaining walls and bridges -- and these are just a few of the issues trail designers in our region contend with.

Does the trail meet a road? The Circuit needs to interface with PennDOT on proper signage, crossings and lights. Does it follow a disused railroad or cross a former industrial site? You have to check with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and deal with soil contamination from things like coal, heavy metals, PCBs or other toxins.

And who owns the land?

"You can’t just walk out and build a trail on land that’s owned by a private person or a company or a railroad, so you have to secure the right-of-way," explains Linn.

These are all issues that are anticipated, met and resolved in the design and engineering phase of a trail, which Linn estimates at about 20 percent of the total cost of any given project. So the Penn Foundation grant is no small thing for the Circuit’s vision. With so many miles of Circuit trails throughout nearby counties vying for design or completion, it’s pretty competitive when it comes to funding.

"When we have money in hand, we want to fund projects that we know aren’t going to get hung up on problems, and if a project is designed, we know what we’re dealing with," Linn insists. "[A well-designed trail] basically moves to the front of the pack in terms of being eligible or being desirable for any kind of construction funding."

"Philadelphia is blessed with some great parks," he adds, but it’s "glass half empty" in some ways, because many parts of the city don’t have easy access to large parks or trails.

DVRPC and the Circuit want to change that within 25 years. 

Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Source: Chris Linn, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission
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