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When a street becomes a destination: East Girard model block unveiled

October 24, 2013

 by Pam Thomas – originally published on LISC.org at http://www.lisc.org/content/article/detail/21313

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.

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 that had the crowd buzzing.

The fence, which offers shelves that could house an artist’s wares during a show or could hold diners’ plates from nearby food trucks, was the most creative piece of this new commercial corridor revitalization project. 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.

The CORE Program Gets it All Started
In June of 2012, New Kensington CDC was one of two Philadelphia non-profits selected to participate in the MetroEdge Corridors of Retail Excellence (CORE) program led by community developer, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC). NKCDC was the recipient of technical assistance and grants totaling $98,000from the PNC Foundation. 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.

The Challenges – and Solutions – for East Girard
In the case of East Girard Avenue in Fishtown, Philadelphia, the challenge for businesses was a too busy and too wide street. From a pedestrian perspective, the problem was compounded by significant 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.

Keys to the Attic owner, Catherine Jennings

Keys to the Attic owner, Catherine Jennings

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. One of those items was a district marketing plan. Around the same time, the City 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.

Business owner Catherine Jennings – the owner of the new antique store – was quick to seize the opportunity and understand the implications of a targeted investment. “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.”

Low cost, high impact
Creativity on a budget was the watchword on this 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, said Ortiz, the lead consultant on the project.

“The competition elevated the level of the proposals tremendously,” she said. 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, she said. “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.”

After: Eye popping facades call out to motorists and pedestrians alike

After: Eye popping facades call out to motorists and pedestrians alike

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. 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.

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,” said 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,” said Quadrini. “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 lots that the fence fronts are owned by the landlord of the gallery next door.

“The fence makes the sidewalk an extension of the stores,” said Ortiz. “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. And East Girard is such a wide street (six lanes including two for parking) that we needed to do something like this that has impact.”

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

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

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?'” said 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, she said, “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
Another special aspect of this project is that 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 they see on the model block into their own storefronts. This idea was modeled after Tenant Design Manuals that shopping center owners typically provide their tenants to ensure consistency of quality design among all retailers.

A page from the storefront design manual that was also unveiled as part of this project. The manual offers clear guidance on both facades and visual merchandising that will help all businesses along the street.

A page from the storefront design manual that was also unveiled as part of this project. The manual offers clear guidance on both facades and visual merchandising that will help all businesses along the street.

A page from the storefront design manual that was also unveiled as part of this project. The manual offers clear guidance on both facades and visual merchandising that will help all businesses along the street.

“The menu identifies key design features along the block,” said 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 said. “We encourage them to have fun. A menu gets the ball rolling.” But, he said, 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. The menu details why design elements are effective.

Williamson said 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 said.

Plenty of areas are looking for new ideas. Fishtown is one of six communities across the country that were selected after competing to become part of LISC’s Corridors of Retail Excellence program, which helps low- and moderate-income communities breathe new life into retail areas. LISC consultants provide expertise and market analysis that can lead to even more investments in the community.

Model block as inspiration
One goal of a model block is to inspire other business owners in the surrounding area. Keys to the Attic owner Jennings said it’s already having a trickle-down effect. 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 said, “and the bar across the street has painted too.”

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 and recently opened their doors to the public. Street Glitter is now a retail space for local artists.

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 and recently opened their doors to the public. Street Glitter is now a retail space for local artists.

NKCDC’s Williamson chimed in with even more good news. 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, said 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,” said Williamson. “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.”

For more on East Girard, read:
Philly stake
Fishtown on the rise

> Learn more about LISC MetroEdge

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