Sunday, December 28, 2008

Real anchors

On November 20th, Greg Heller wrote about the value of anchor institutions in reengaging and redeveloping urban neighborhoods. His piece focused on what Penn students affectionately call “Fro-Gro,” the Fresh Grocer supermarket, and how it helped change a street and a neighborhood. However by focusing on what real estate agents call the 100% corner (where all the traffic is), Greg skirted some of the more complex issues that surround the development of the entire 40th street corridor as it stretches from Locust to Chestnut. Heller praises Penn’s successful transformation of the 40th street corridor into a neighborhood center. However having lived on Penn’s campus and having considered West Philadelphia my home for several years (off and on) I respectfully disagree on at least one aspect of his assertion; I wonder if the entire development truly is a neighborhood center. While clearly Fro-Gro and the movie theatre are frequented by the larger University City community, I am not sure the rest of this stretch, and the adjacent restaurant row on 40th and Chestnut, are frequented by West Philadelphians so much as Penn associates.

Readers should understand that I don’t mean to criticize the entire redevelopment effort, I only question its role in West Philly’s daily life. Moreover I simply state this as a hunch: if someone were able to show me data proving that everything from Qdoba to New Dheli are frequented by people living in West Philadelphia but not students at Penn (anecdotal or otherwise) I would be happy to be proven wrong.
Ultimately what I think the true story of 40th Street is, is one that shows that significant investment, coupled by significant patience and experimentation is key to transforming a neighborhood. It is a task best realized by those anchor institutions such as universities.

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The 100% corner at 40th and Walnut is pretty impressive, both architecturally and programmatically, there is a movie theatre, a bar, a supermarket, an art gallery, a student newspaper, a community center and a small bakery. The shopping center to the Suth, on 40th, is less so, filled largely with chain stores that would easily fit in any mall, with the noteable exception of a used book and a music store. Along Chestnut, older buildings are host to local restaurants serving international food. These three or four blocks have three different, but interrelated stories that are important for all those interested in urban redevelopment.

40th street used to be considered the far edge of Penn’s campus, no man’s land for its well-heeled students whose parents would forbid them from entering the wilds of West Philly. When Penn wanted to stabilize the neighborhoods surrounding it, following the shooting death of one of its students in the 90’s, it rightfully made 40th street a central focus. Between Locust and Walnut on 40th is a small shopping center with a Q’doba, a Ben & Jerry’s, medical offices, a Radio-Shack, a Chinese food restaurant, a bagel shop, a used book-store ( Last Word Books, run by local bluegrass musician Larry) and a music and record store The Marvelous. It is a “tenanting mix” that seems largely to appeal to the Student population with a few strategic shops (Last Word, Marvelous) aimed at establishing authenticity and local appeal. Someone at Penn spent a lot of time agonizing over who would go in this building. And yet it remains kind of cheap and inauthentic (except of course for the Last Word and The Marvelous), and it is all related to the cheap office park construction that it is housed within. I would venture a guess that even the Farmers market across the street is frequented more by Penn Students than by University City residents. This is not to say that this is not a successful project, but rather it is not naturally a neighborhood institutions.

Along Chestnut, instead, you have several old restaurants, Indian and Mexican, which have been there forever, and feel far more lived in. These are restaurants that moved into old buildings, renovating them to serve the student and Penn staff population, one that was searching for cheap and tasty food. When Jane Jacobs, in her seminal work The Life and Death of Great American Cities (sigh, yes that one again), talked about the value of old buildings, she stressed that it was their latent value and cheap rent which made them critical for redeveloping neighborhoods. Without the critical investment by independent restaurateurs this stretch would never have attracted the HUB, the new upscale apartment building on 40th and Chestnut. Despite the recent upgrade to one of the cheap Indian food joints, and the new condos, this place still feels remarkably authentic, and I would venture a guess that they are frequented as much by neighborhood residents as they are by Penn affiliates, whether or not as Heller notes that those blocks on Chestnut “still feel dowdy and kind of identity-less to me. It’s the bright yellow signs on 40th street, and the parking lots mid-block on Chestnut that make it seem uncared for and unsafe at night.”

On the 100% corner you have both impressive architecture, and impressive additions to a wider community. Penn continues to fund The Rotunda, an independent community center operated out of an old church, and expended much of its own private capital to help make sure that both the cinema and the supermarket were built to higher architectural standards. All of this is to say that great projects and great architecture sit at a nexus: those hard-to-finance projects, sit in hard-to-finance buildings. Great projects require significant commitment by those creating them, and this commitment is often manifested in interesting buildings, whether they are old churches barely held together, but by love and volunteerism, and those cathedrals to modern living, the structured parking above a grocery store.

The real contribution Penn made to this community, and the thing which anchor institutions would be wise to learn, is that investment in a community is not simply about building one big building, but slowly tapping into different market segments, letting many to grow naturally, and to both redevelop old properties and to construct new boring ones. It’s kind of like diversifying your stock portfolio. You don’t need one big-money item. You can slowly develop your portfolio through a diverse range of small investments. , your investments can be cheap and with impact (the boring buildings on locust) can be slow and independent (like the restaurants of chestnut) not just big and splashy (Fro-Gro, etc).

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What Penn has done has been, simply put, spectacular. It has done it because it had the will, the money, and the patience, to do it and do it right. Calling it a neighborhood retail center requires shifting the locus of that neighborhood to Penn’s campus; by and large the majority of the visitors to all these institutions are Penn affiliates. And it is that which underscores the true transformative effect of Penn, one that hasn’t always been purposeful. The surrounding neighborhoods are populated by Penn (and other university) students, staff and faculty, and they have been living there for close to twenty years. So perhaps calling it a neighborhood center isn’t so far off, because Penn is part of the neighborhood…. But that’s another story.

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