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East Girard Avenue in Fishtown, where downtown Philadelphia is just a few miles away.

Stand on the trolley tracks in the center of East Girard Avenue and you can see the Philadelphia skyline. That’s how close this stretch of the Fishtown neighborhood is to the gleaming city center.

Fishtown is just over two miles northeast of where tourists admire the Liberty Bell and politicians close deals in City Hall. Yet it’s never quite managed to bloom to its potential.

Although one primary Fishtown corridor, Frankford Avenue, has experienced a recent uptick in commercial success, nearby East Girard Avenue is still an inconsistent work in progress, sprinkled with both thriving businesses and too many vacancies.

And so, a newly launched commercial corridor revitalization effort is focusing on East Girard.

The model block will give local firms expert advice on well-designed, low-cost improvements.

An architectural firm is creating a “model block” to demonstrate how dynamic the street could be. Both existing businesses and those looking for a new venue will be able to see how well-designed, low-cost improvements can dramatically improve the vitality of East Girard.

The early-action funding for the model-block program has already had a wider impact. Larisa Ortiz of Larisa Ortiz Associates, a consultant on the project, says that the commitment persuaded the City of Philadelphia to provide a $25,000 grant to create a marketing plan for the entire stretch of East Girard.

“It’s great that we have both of these programs going together,” says Angie Williamson, the economic development director for the New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC), a main partner in the project. All the model block’s store owners, she says, “are on board for this.”

Building with CORE

The model block will be the most visible face of the plan to revitalize East Girard, which itself is part of a larger effort funded by The PNC Bank Foundation.

East Girard already offers a mix of fun shops and well-known restaurants.

PNC is providing more than $600,000 over two years to expand LISC MetroEdge’s Corridors of Retail Excellence program to six commercial corridors in low- and moderate-income communities in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Chicago. East Girard is one of those in Philadelphia, along with a project on the 52nd Street corridor.

For these six sites, CORE brings experienced consultants such as Ortiz to assess the markets with data reports and market analyses to help the community determine needs and opportunities, integrate commercial corridor ideas into any comprehensive plans, and begin to take action on improvements.

The $25,000 early-action budget has provided the impetus for a three-point work plan that includes the model block with its physical improvements to the street and buildings; a pop-up retail program; and training and consultation in visual merchandising for local businesses.

In addition to the New Kensington Community Development Corporation, which has been working with businesses on East Girard for more than 10 years, Philadelphia LISC and the Fishtown Area Business Association are also involved in the efforts.

A model block

The section of East Girard chosen as the model block has historic structures with retail storefronts that can demonstrate improved facades and creative window displays.

Art on the model block.

“The visual impact of the model block will be enormous, and it will be a catalyst for others on the street to take advantage,” Williamson says. “Not only will we get one great block, but we’ll get other great blocks in the future.”

Because most of the businesses on the street are small, it’s essential to make it easy and affordable to come up with improvements. Williamson points out that the project’s architects—a joint venture of Brian Szymanik Architects and architect David Quadrini—“are creating a menu of façade improvements that anyone can do, not just the model block businesses. We’ll have a brochure on lighting fixtures, doors, all kinds of things” that can make an impact.

Szymanik says that with the big picture challenge of “how to get East Girard to be cool again,’’ design features can help unify the avenue. Currently every block has a different feel.

To help put improvements in reach, store owners can get help from the City’s ongoing Storefront Improvement Program, which will match up to $8,000 in improvements in a 50/50 offer.

“It’s a nice incentive, but sometimes it’s not enough alone because they can’t afford to hire an architect or don’t know what kind of design will work,” Williamson says. “[Now] they can look at the brochure and say, ‘I like this, I like that,’ and they will know what it costs because it’s already been done down the street.”

Merchandizing and pop-ups

With the launch of the model-block program, NKCDC to ask the city to fund the early-action part of the CORE work plan to develop a marketing scheme for East Girard as a district. Now, visual merchandising consultation and training will be offered to all business owners on the street.

Williamson says the $25,000 grant has allowed them to hire firms to work on “three or four one-pagers to help us recruit new businesses and new customers.” Also being worked on now are streetscape guidelines and Web presence.

“A lot of people don’t know East Girard is there,” Williamson says. “They know one or two places, like Johnny Brenda’s (a destination nightspot/restaurant), but they don’t really look at the place as a whole.”

“We want to use this project to create more of a destination here," says Andrew Frishkoff, executive director of Philadelphia LISC.

Andrew Frishkoff, executive director of Philadelphia LISC, agrees. “We want to use this project to create more of a destination here. We want to show that there’s a reason that you would want to come and spend time and money here,” he says. “There are a lot of good things happening in and around East Girard, but there’s always a sense that it could be more cohesive.”

Frishkoff points out that, currently, East Girard can feel like a corridor cutting through the district. Instead, he says, it can be a hub, a meeting place between north and south.

The architects have noted that a significant piece of the puzzle will be how to deal with the extreme width of the avenue, which has four traffic lanes, two parking lanes and a median.

The idea is to bring it down to scale, said Quadrini. Ideas from the neighborhood include angled parking, interesting benches and planters, and increased outdoor café seating.

When this plan began, the model block had several vacancies, and plans were afoot to open a temporary “pop-up” shop in one of the storefronts, to provide even more merchandising ideas. Since then, the block’s vacancies have disappeared, but a pop-up is being planned nearby.

The model block and pop-up will be unveiled in a neighborhood celebration that will be promoted in Fishtown and beyond. It will be inspiration for both current store owners and those with a dream, Ortiz says.

With the model block and the district-wide marketing efforts, Frishkoff says that he hopes the neighborhood sees “the value of working together now, and then to continue working to improve the corridor. We want to do it together, and not just wait for an investor or a developer to come along and find the corridor.” It’s important, he says, for the neighborhood to promote its own vision and make it a reality.

Happily, with all that’s going on already, Williamson says one thing is for sure: “We’re getting much more bang for our bucks than just six storefronts.”

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To read more about East Girard Avenue and its stores, click here.

Posted in Commercial and Economic Development, Philadelphia

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