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Robin Kohles: Designing for Philly's corridors

Robin Kohles brought advocates for neighborhood economic development together via design.

Robin Kohles served as project manager for the Collaborative’s economic development design services for eight years. As Robin wraps up her tenure at the Collaborative, we asked her to reflect on her work and people and places she’s encountered along the way.

Give us a cook’s tour of what you did at the Collaborative.
Small businesses are really important. They are the generators of new jobs and economic growth in the city. I focused on providing design assistance, education, and outreach to support business and job development in Philadelphia, with a special focus on neighborhood commercial corridors.  I served as design advisor on the Philadelphia Department of Commerce's Storefront Improvement Program (SIP) Review Committee, which reviews applications for façade improvement grants.

I matched volunteer design professionals with groups of businesses on commercial corridors to help them plan storefront facade improvements. I also matched volunteers with CDC's that needed community engagement and preliminary design for streetscape improvements and commercial buildings. 

Finally, I collaborated with Commerce to develop two special programs: the Storefront Challenge awards program, which recognizes design excellence in storefront improvements, and Corridor Realities, which presents best design practices to corridor managers and other economic development advocates.

What will you miss most?
I’ll miss all the people that have a role in improving our neighborhood commercial corridors. I’ll miss the Commerce staff. They are so dedicated! They really understand how to engage small businesses. I’ll also miss the corridor managers. Corridor managers are ambitious, energetic, and most of all dogged. I remember Alex Balloon [Corridor Manager for Tacony CDC] saying, “It take five no’s before you get a yes.” They know how to build trust with business owners to get them to the table for incentives like SIP grants.

And, of course, I’ll miss the businesses themselves. When you get out on commercial corridors, you meet business owners who are working hard and who have been working hard for many years to make Philadelphia a better place. When I toured the Broad, Erie, and Germantown Corridor with Mike Major [President of Called to Serve CDC], people came out of the woodwork to shake his hand.

Has the job made you see the city differently?
This job has expanded my horizons. Just when you think you’ve seen every commercial corridor. There’s another one to explore. It’s fun peeking inside and discovering all these real places. You know they are there, but you don’t really see them.

What’s next? 
When I was hired for this job, I thought I knew what community design and community engagement was. I quickly saw that there was so much more to learn. I’m still learning!

I want to stay in the community design and development space. I’m looking forward to getting more deeply involved in placemaking and play spaces for children, two topics I got to explore at the Collaborative. In the immediate future, I’ll be volunteering with SOSNA to work on next steps for the Grays Ferry Triangles pop-up park.  




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