Each year, the Collaborative and the Philadelphia Department of Commerce share some of the lessons we’ve learned working together on Philly's neighborhood commercial corridors by co-hosting an event at DesignPhiladelphia. This year, our theme was taking it to the streets.
Commerce supports Philadelphia’s neighborhood commercial corridors through technical assistance and funding to leverage facade and streetscape improvements. The Collaborative gives these services some extra spin—advising CDCs, corridors, and businesses on design strategies to maximize the impact of Storefront Improvement Program (SIP) grants and other neighborhood commercial corridor improvements.
Streetscapes—lighting, color, plantings, storefront facades, crosswalks, street furniture, and more—are an essential part of making a neighborhood commercial corridor inviting and unique. But it can be tough to untangle the owners of all these infrastructure elements and pull together to transform a streetscape.
The Collaborative and Commerce brought together leaders of successful, creative efforts to transform streetscapes in Philadelphia and New York City. Alan Greenberger, FAIA, Deputy Mayor of Economic Development and Director of Commerce for the City of Philadelphia, moderated the conversation.
Deconstructing the streetscape
Paul Levy, executive director of Center City District (CCD) and major advocate for Philadelphia’s public environment, underscored the complexity with graphic showing the myriad public agencies responsible for elements of the typical Philly streetscape.
Levy traced CCD’s engagement with the public realm from proactive monitoring (GIS-based handheld devices to survey and report on streetscape conditions), to streetscape enhancements (landscaping and directional signage), to placemaking (Sister Cities Park and Dilworth Park).
He also noted that the diversity of the city’s streetscapes is what makes them interesting, but challenging. Despite variability of streetscapes throughout the city, he thinks it would be possible to replicate CCD’s survey tools in other neighborhoods, as a first step in addressing the public realm.
“The diversity of the city’s streetscapes is what makes them interesting, but it's also what makes them challenging.” — Paul Levy, Center City District
The economic impact of façade improvements
Storefront façades contribute to the public environment of corridors too. Giana Lawrence, manager of the Storefront Improvement Program (SIP) for the Philadelphia Department of Commerce, shared findings from a recent Commerce study on the economic impact of storefront façade improvements.
"Design does in fact increase sales activity and change trends on our corridors." — Giana Lawrence, Philadelphia Department of Commerce
Lawrence offered a before-and-after portrait of businesses that received SIP grants on two corridors—East Passyunk Avenue and Frankford Avenue. In both cases, these businesses reported significant increases in sales and stronger sales performance in comparison to unimproved businesses on their corridors. Read about Commerce’s findings on increased sales, spinoff investment, and stronger neighborhoods here.
Adventures in urban planting
Renee Gilinger, executive director of the East Passyunk Business Improvement District, and Curt Alexander, owner of Urban Jungle, spoke about their teamwork to develop a an entirely new prototype for sustainably-designed sidewalk planters.
Gilinger was seeking streetscape furnishings that would be both green and durable, especially on Broad Street where busy bus stops generate litter and cigarette butts and delivery trucks often park on sidewalks. Plus, planting trees in the ground was impossible above the Broad Street Subway. “We were trying to establish a sense of nature within a really harsh environment,” said Alexander.
Urban Jungle invented the gabion street planter to meet the challenge. A gabion is wirework container filled with rock, broken concrete, or other material. After some initial testing and adjustments, Urban Jungle fabricated eleven planters with a budget of under $20,000.
The prototype is a keeper. “You can change the look of the gabion planter easily by using different stone or recycled glass," said Alexander. "We were able to put in better soil than an in-ground street planting hole would offer… and the planters were untippable.”
“Every time I turn this corner, I smile. It warmed my heart to see the planters work so well." — Renee Gilinger, East Passyunk Business Improvement District
Under the Elevated
The final example of an innovative partnership to transform streetscapes came from New York City, where the Design Trust for Public Space and the NYC Department of Transportation collaborated on seven projects to reclaim and transform public space under elevated transit structures.
Public land under the bridges and trestles of New York City constitutes 700 linear miles of a public space in the city. The Under the Elevated projects were conceived to progress from pop-ups to pilot projects to permanent streetscapes.One such example was Division Street under the Manhattan Bridge in Chinatown, where a pop-up installation was used to gather and test out ideas for a broader Chinatown gateway initiative.
“We start with observation. Even spaces that seemed dead can have lots of activity,” said Chat Travieso, Participatory Design Fellow for the Design Trust. Indeed, people were observed in this rather dark and dirty space shucking corn, selling crabs and fruit, playing board games, and sitting on crates.
The Design Trust created a pop-up interactive community calendar where residents could post activities on a map of Chinatown. “We noticed that even if people didn’t add to the calendar, they stopped to look,” said Chat. The calendar was complemented by a chalkboard to ask the community questions like: What would you like to see under the bridge? How can this become a gateway?
Rosamond Fletcher, Director of Programs for the Design Trust, noted that a few improvements followed this pop-up, “NYC DOT dedicated dollars to this gateway (one of five gateways into Chinatown), so we were able to purchase and install street furniture.”
Neil Gagliardi, Director of Urban Design for the NYC Department of Transportation said these modest changes have been a success, “Despite noise, there’s a dearth of public space… as soon as we installed benches and moveable chairs, people began to use them.” Plans are in progress for lighting and wayfinding.
“We want to maintain the spirit that the neighborhood can take ownership, but also create replicate systems that can be used all over the city.” — Neil Gagliardi, NYC DOT