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When a street becomes a destination

East Girard Avenue is located in Fishtown, a neighborhood just two miles from the Liberty Bell in downtown Philadelphia. The community is increasingly attracting new interest, particularly along Frankford Avenue. East Girard Avenue, however, has lagged, pockmarked by too many storefront vacancies and a wide, heavily trafficked street.

The model block's eye-popping facades call out to motorists and pedestrians alike.

As TV cameras rolled in Philadelphia's Fishtown, the ribbon was cut on a "model block" program that featured perhaps the ultimate in a low-cost, high-impact project: an interactive fence with  shelves that can house an artist's wares during a show or  hold diners’ plates from nearby food trucks.

The fence had the crowd buzzing, but it was equally hard to miss the colorful new store facades that are making the 300 block of East Girard Avenue stand out–an inspiration for how lively the entire broad avenue could be.

In June of 2012, New Kensington CDC was one of two Philadelphia nonprofits selected to participate in the LISC MetroEdge Corridors of Retail Excellence (CORE) program, recieving technical assistance and grants totaling $98,000 from the PNC Foundation. Fishtown is one of six communities across the country that were selected for CORE, which helps low- and moderate-income communities breathe new life into retail areas. 

The 18-month program provides guidance from content experts to help define a set of early actions–a series of low-cost, high-impact "starting points" for commercial revitalization. The technical assistance is then followed by $25,000 in seed money for capital improvements that in this case sought to attract new businesses and inspire and help the ones that already exist.

"This block is going to be a wonderful thing for Fishtown," Catherine Jennings, owner of Keys to the Attic, an antiques and home décor store on the model block, told the crowd at the ribbon-cutting in October. "We have restaurants and bars as anchors on either end of the street, and now with this we have an anchor in the middle. It will draw traffic to us from either end."

The challenges–and solutions–for East Girard
In the case of East Girard Avenue, the challenge for businesses is that the street that is too busy and too wide (six lanes including two for parking), and from a pedestrian perspective, there are gaps between existing pockets of retail.

Moreover, while the district had a growing brand and identity, it was not being fully used to support local businesses.

As part of the CORE program, New York-based LISC consultants Larisa Ortiz and Kristen Wilke performed a "district diagnostic" that resulted in a menu of early action items, including a district marketing plan. Around the same time, the City of Philadelphia issued an RFP for projects. The team responded with a proposed marketing plan that won $25,000 in city monies for implementation.

Next came capital improvements. During the diagnostic, it became clear that the gaps in retail would need to be addressed.

The answer? Build a retail node and create visible impact by dressing up a block with "good bones"–buildings that were in decent shape and could accommodate ground floor retail. After walking the street and visiting a newly opened antique store on the 300 block of East Girard–the only retail store on the block at that time–a "model block" had been identified.

Low cost, high impact
Creativity on a budget was the watchword on the project. Rather than simply hiring an architect for the model block, it was decided to make the selection competitive in order to maximize creative solutions, says Ortiz, the lead consultant on the project.

Architects David Quadrini and Brian Szymanik of MAKE Architecture + Planning in front of the interactive fence.

"The competition elevated the level of the proposals tremendously," she says, adding that MAKE Architecture + Planning, the Philadelphia architects selected, "blew us away" with their ideas.

Part of the concept was that the model block should look like a destination. "At the time, it didn't read as a retail block, and the goal was to have it read that way. We want drivers to notice the block, pull over to take a look, and we wanted neighborhood people to come over here and shop," Ortiz says.

The eye-popping colors that the architects suggested to business owners for their facades–lime green, lemon yellow–plus attractive signage and new lighting make the block stand out along the busy avenue.

Casey Lynch and Tami Horvath, owners of Street Glitter Gallery with Victor Perez. In addition to a storefront renovation, the owners received visual merchandising assistance through the CORE program.

But the icing on the cake is the interactive fence, which begins next to the Street Glitter Gallery, a newly revamped gallery that features Philadelphia artists, and stretches to cover two dusty vacant lots owned by the landlord of the gallery next door.

The fence is made of ordinary pressure-treated pine, but the way the slats are spaced and the shelves jut out at various heights, it resembles a sculpture. As the sun moves overhead during the day, the shadows the fence slats cast add to the effect.

The architects give credit for the fence to the group's creative process too. "Initially, it was frustrating because there was this vacant space at the end of the block three properties wide," says David Quadrini. "That hurts a lot from a retail perspective." So how could they use that space creatively and inexpensively?

"The fence started as a doodle on paper," Quadrini says. "There was something to it, we didn't know what it was at first, and then it bloomed as everybody had input. You can hang stuff off the shelves, you can eat a sandwich from a food truck off it, you can showcase one artist during First Fridays, [a monthly gallery walk]." 

"The fence makes the sidewalk an extension of the stores."

"The fence makes the sidewalk an extension of the stores," Ortiz says. "Instead of something you walk by, it's something you can use, a marketplace. The more density we create on the block, the stronger the block is as an attraction."

Meanwhile, the architects lent their expertise to help the model-block business owners make their facades as high-impact as possible with eye-catching colors, effective signage and the right kind of lighting to attract shoppers.

They also visited each store to talk to owners about visual merchandising to maximize sales, especially in the storefront windows.

Raymond Piccoli and Cindy Mancuso, owners of Nic Nacs 4 Peanuts Collectibles, opened their collectibles and antiques store as the model block was taking shape. They got help with their new sign and with the sanding and painting of their façade.

The architects "came to us with the colors they envisioned. And at first I thought, 'Ooh, wow, lime green?'" says Mancuso. But after the paint went up, she said, she realized it worked, "You really notice it. And you want to stand out."

As for merchandising, Mancuso says, "people came in and helped us, though they liked what we were doing. It confirmed that we were on the right track."

A design menu for all
East Girard businesses not on the model block are benefitting too. The architects collected their design and merchandising advice into a menu, in a print pamphlet and on the web, that shows business owners how they can easily and inexpensively incorporate the ideas into their own storefronts.

A page from the storefront design manual, which offers clear guidance on both facades and visual merchandising on the street.

The idea was modeled after Tenant Design Manuals that shopping center owners typically provide their tenants to ensure consistency of quality design among all retailers.

"The menu identifies key design features along the block," says architect Quadrini. "As a store owner, where do you start when you don't do design for a living? It can be intimidating. So the menu shows them what they can do. It gives advice: 'Paint this, don't paint that.' 'Put your sign here, don't put it there.'"

"People can pick anything they want," he says. "We encourage them to have fun. A menu gets the ball rolling." But, he points out, it also sets up a goal: The design of a storefront is to "bring people in and get them to shop." Signage, color, lighting and more all affect the consumer.

Williamson says the city has an ongoing Storefront Improvement Program that will match up to $8,000 in improvements.

It's worth noting, said LISC senior consultant Helen Dunlap, that the physical improvements on the model block and the design menu were all done for less than $25,000, and that those improvements can be easily replicated in other commercial corridors.

"There are so many little pieces of this plan that can live on both in this place and in new places," she says.

Keys to the Attic owner, Catherine Jenning, in her store.

Model block as inspiration
Keys to the Attic owner Jennings said the model block is already having a trickle-down effect in Fishtown. Jennings noted that since the sanding and painting began on the model block, nearby businesses are starting to spruce up too.

"The locksmith has painted his storefront," she says, "and the bar across the street has painted too."

NKCDC's Williamson adds that a building kitty-corner from the model block that has sat vacant for a decade has been purchased for a massage therapy school. Novastar Pharmacy opened in the last three months across the street. Several new pizza establishments have debuted.

And on the model block itself, not only are there three new (or anticipated) businesses, but there are now plans for a three-story building to be built on the vacant lot next to the fence, possibly housing a branch of a well-known local bakery.

Bob Murphy, who owns a pink and green building that used to house an ice cream store on the model block, says that though he wasn't an official participant in the model block program, he recently re-did the plumbing in his building and a Thai and Vietnamese restaurant is opening soon. Everyone agrees that will be a good mix with the retail shops.

With all the recent activity, it's the perfect time for the new marketing campaign, says Williamson, which is financed by a $25,000 state grant from the Department of Community and Economic Development.

A brand new web site for East Girard is launching soon, featuring everything from property listings to special events happening on the street. In addition, the grant has paid for the creation of a logo and branding for the area. Fliers and brochures are being developed to use in a variety of ways to recruit new businesses to the area.

"East Girard is a long street, stretching from Front Street to I-95. It had no real identity,"  Williamson says. "Now, with the model block and the new marketing plan, we can show that, hey, there's a great stretch of East Girard in Fishtown. It's funky and unique, and it's burgeoning with new businesses and life."

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Posted in Commercial and Economic Development, Philadelphia

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