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Draft QoL Plan for Eastern North Available

April 26, 2011

After six months of buildup and hard work, Eastern North Philadelphia now has a draft plan for building a neighborhood that reflects its residents’ best hopes for themselves and their children.

There is, the plan makes clear, a lot of work to do.

But the community has momentum on its side, real assets such as proximity to Center City and Temple University, and now, a detailed blueprint for improving not just the physical landscape, but the neighborhood’s quality of life as well.

The plan, which will be revised over the next one to two months, is divided into seven priority areas, all of which were identified by resident committees following interviews with 83 community leaders and a LISC and APM-led visioning meeting that drew 211 residents.

Since then, smaller groups have worked to identify specific goals and steps that can be taken to improve the community’s quality of life in each of the priority areas. Just as important, APM and LISC will be working to find people and organizations willing to assume responsibility for each project cited in the quality of life plan.

Here are some highlights from each priority area included in the plan, which was developed by Interface Studio under the supervision of LISC and APM

The physical transformation of Eastern North Philadelphia over the last decade has been astonishing and impressive. But for all the progress that’s been made, 23 percent of all the land in the community remains vacant and uncared for, while another seven percent is open space maintained by the Philadelphia Horticultural Society that is available for development. The abundance of vacant land has made the neighborhood a destination for illegal dumpers, making the community appear in some areas as uncared for and dangerous. And yet, the neighborhood’s rapid physical redevelopment has stoked community concerns about gentrification and affordability.

To address the vacant land and litter problems, the draft plan:

  • Calls for a Neighborhood Stewardship Task Force – comprised of block captains and community leaders – to step up reporting of code violations and illegal dumping, and the creation of anti-litter campaign to organize regular clean-ups and adopt public trash cans.
  • Suggests a local vacant land inventory, jointly maintained by all community organizations in the area.
  • Identifies a few plots of vacant land – including the parcels around Welsh Elementary School – as good pilot projects for the task force.
  • Promotes temporary uses for vacant land, like community gardens or mobile vendors, uses which can help developers see the value of abandoned property.
  • Calls for targeted streetscape investments, particularly on commercial corridors and heavily traveled intersections.

To help ensure residents are not priced out of their own neighborhood by redevelopment, the quality of life plan advocates:

  • Continued construction of mixed-income housing developments by APM and other non-profit developers.
  • Assistance to long-time property owners to help them maintain and repair their homes, including home repair workshops and helping residents get connected to city and state programs that offer home-repair funding to low-income property owners.

Poverty and a perceived lack of job opportunities are two of Eastern North Philadelphia’s most difficult challenges. The area’s median household income is almost half that of the city as a whole, and over half of all residents live below the poverty line, according to the 2000 census.

To improve the job prospects of local residents, the draft quality of life plan:

  • Calls on local organizations to coordinate their job training programs so that residents can more easily understand what resources are available. Further, the plan suggests that these training programs focus on work skills such as nursing that are valued by big Eastern North employers.
  • Suggests that local non-profit developers, like APM, use their construction programs to create job and training opportunities for residents.
  • Proposes youth information technology training based out of the new Hartranft Computer Lab.

To help low-income residents achieve financial self-sufficiency, the plan:

  • Emphasizes financial planning counseling and connecting residents to pre-existing public assistance programs such as energy subsidies and available property tax abatements.
  • Calls on non-profit service providers to identify and address gaps in the services they collectively offer.

In drafting the plan, LISC, APM and Interface Studios found that there is a strong entrepreneurial impulse among residents of Eastern North Philadelphia, but little support is available for those would-be small business owners. As a result, the area lacks commercial options, which in turn diminishes job opportunities for local residents. The draft quality of life plan calls for a four-pronged approach to economic development.

Support existing local businesses by:

  • Launching a Buy Local campaign to highlight local businesses.
  • Ensuring that local business owners are aware of all existing city and state small business programs.

Encourage new business by:

  • Offering entrepreneurship classes and technical help – such as acquiring the right city licenses – to local residents.
  • Welcoming and recruiting franchises, traditionally a strong small business option for mixed-income neighborhoods.
  • Encouraging vendors and other low-cost retailers – such as produce or food trucks – especially on vacant land.
  • Lobbying the city to redevelop industry along American Street.

Improving the physical appearance of commercial areas by:

  • Asking businesses to consider banding together to hire street cleaning crews and safety patrols.
  • Encouraging business owners to improve their properties, particularly facades and lighting.
  • Redeveloping underused traffic triangles along Germantown Avenue by using them to host public art and landscaping.

Creating a neighborhood retail core, building off of Borinquen Plaza and Germantown Avenue by:

  • Organizing public events in Borinquen Plaza, making use of the new La Placita pocket park.
  • Forming a local business association.

Given that over half the adults in Eastern North Philadelphia lack a high school diploma, it is little wonder that residents there are anxious about the community’s stubbornly high dropout rate and the poor performance of some neighborhood schools. Community members feel that truancy and a lack of parent involvement in the schools is a major source of the problem.

To reduce the dropout rate and lower truancy, the plan proposes the community:

  • Develop a local version of dropout prevention programs now being piloted elsewhere in the city.
  • Consider applying to become a Promise Neighborhood, which is a competitive federally administered grant program that funds local non-profits and faith-based groups to provide educational support for children and their families.
  • Sponsor evening activities for kids to give children a safe place to play when after school programs let out.

To engage parents in their children’s education, the draft plan suggests:

  • Publicizing the Rivera Parent and Family Resource Center, a newly opened school district office that provides parents with one-stop-shops for answers on school questions such as enrollment, transfers and special education services. The center also serves as a repository for information on college scholarships and education opportunities for adults.
  • Community members join school advisory councils and attend Superintendents’ Parent Roundtables, venues that offer residents an opportunity to speak to larger issues of school reform.

Eastern North Philadelphia has an abundance of community groups big and small that are working to improve the community. But, as Stacey Chen of Interface Studio put it a community meeting last week where the draft plan was unveiled: “the problem is they don’t always talk together or work together. There’s a sense that there needs to be an agenda that involves everyone so they know where they can work together, where they can cooperate.” Residents of Eastern North Philadelphia also felt strongly that more needed to be done to recruit younger leaders, and to get a bigger swath of residents engaged in community building.

To achieve those goals, the plan calls for:

  • The creation of a faith-based coalition, to better coordinate manpower and resources among the many active faith-based organizations in the neighborhood.
  • A revitalized block captain network, including a “block captain university” to get new block captains up to speed on their responsibilities and the resources available to them.
  • Encouraging youth participation in neighborhood redevelopment by enlisting “junior” block captains, and by recruiting youth representatives into neighborhood steering committees and organizations.
  • Improving the capacity of community groups  by connecting them with the Philadelphia Nonprofit Capacity Building Collaborative, which offers expertise at free or discounted rates to non-profit organizations.
  • Holding regular meetings and retreats for community leaders, with the aim of hammering out an agenda that all community groups can get behind and evaluating progress that has been made on the quality of life plan.
  • Creating a “brand” for the neighborhoods served by SCI Eastern North.
  • Regular community-building events – such as outdoor movie screenings or festivals – to strengthen the community’s sense of self.

A majority of Eastern North Philadelphia residents consider crime, drugs and safety as the most pressing community concerns, but considerable progress is being made. Violent crime in the area is no worse than the city as a whole, according to 2008 data, the most recent available. And improved engagement from the 26th Police District has helped to tamp down crime hot spots, and strengthened the relationship between police and the community.

There is more to healthy environments than crime, however. There is access to parks and recreational destinations, which are limited in the area. There is public health, including the obesity epidemic, teen pregnancy and drug use. And there is environmental sustainability, an area where Eastern North is already showing significant leadership.

On the question of crime, the draft plan recommends:

  • A new police bike unit, to patrol the neighborhood in warm-weather months, a tactic which can strengthen the connection between police officers and the community.
  • A formal town watch program.
  • Community events that pair residents with police officers, such as National Night Out.
  • Targeting nuisance businesses like problem bars, by seeking the assistant of the District Attorney’s Public Nuisance Task Force.
  • Changing the physical environment in crime hot spots, such as the handball court on 6th Street slated to be renovated this spring.

To improve public health, the plan calls for:

  • A series of public health campaigns and programs, specifically targeting obesity, drug use prevention and teen pregnancy prevention.
  • Better access to healthy foods through community gardens, a local farmer’s market and the city’s new Healthy Corner Store Initiative.

To solidify the neighborhood’s position as a leader in green building and lifestyles, the plan proposes:

  • Potential relocation of the ball fields at Dauphin and 4th Streets, so that Dauphin and 4th could be reconnected as well as opening up a green walkway between Welsh and McKinley schools.
  • A street tree planting strategy and recruiting more volunteer tree tenders.
  • Workshops in weatherproofing homes and other energy efficiency steps local residents can take to save money and lessen their impact on the environment.
  • Hold a “greenest block” contest, to encourage friendly competition in recycling, stormwater management and energy use.
  • Create a community compost center in a vacant lot.

To encourage alternative transportation, the plan advocates:

  • New bike lanes.
  • Better signage and streetscape improvements at major transit stops.

Specifically, the plan recommends:

  • Use temporary art installations to improve the appearance of vacant lots and abandoned buildings. A temporary fence, for instance, could be painted with a mural.
  • Create an artist in residency program dedicated to making artistic use of vacant land.
  • Organizing bi-lingual tours of public art installations and gardens in the area that also highlight the offerings of local cafes and restaurants.
  • Aligning local artists and cultural organizations with the North Philadelphia Arts and Cultural Alliance.
  • Getting lessons in culturally-based activism from community leaders in Chinatown.
  • Developing an annual outdoor arts and culture fair and an outdoor summer concert series to increase the exposure of local musicians and artists.
  • Support programs that connect local artists with neighborhood schools.
  • Explore possibility of reopening the shuttered Teatro Puerto Rico as an arts space or performance venue.
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