2 Northwest Philly groups named finalists in Knight Foundation’s Cities Challenge

 Mt. Airy USA's proposal aims to attract more residents and business owners to the Northwest neighborhood. (Natavan Werbock/for NewsWorks, file)

Mt. Airy USA's proposal aims to attract more residents and business owners to the Northwest neighborhood. (Natavan Werbock/for NewsWorks, file)

What’s your best idea to make cities more successful?

So reads the tagline on the website for the Knight Cities Challenge. 

Two Northwest Philly community development corporations — Mt. Airy USA and the Central Roxborough Civic Association — have been chosen as finalists in the Knight Cities Challenge, which sought out innovative ideas from cities across the country on ways to boost urban development, expand economic opportunity and create a culture of civic engagement.

The challenge, run by the Knight Foundation, was open to 26 communities that at one time or another had newspapers operated by John and James Knight. (The Philadelphia Inquirer was once such a publication.)

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Upon learning of the challenge, Mt. Airy USA submitted four separate applications.

Anuj Gupta, the group’s executive director, was thrilled when he learned one of the organization’s ideas was chosen out of about 7,000-plus that came through.

The application was titled the “Philadelphia Immigrant Innovation Hub,” and the idea is to harness immigrants’ talent and energy to help revitalize distressed neighborhoods by providing centers offering low-cost space, language assistance, workshops and trainings, as well as access to traditional and non-traditional sources of capital.

Philadelphia’s population trend was one reason behind the idea, Gupta said.

Immigration fueling growth

While the city as a whole has experienced population growth spurred by immigration, the Mt. Airy neighborhood itself is not reflecting that increase in diversity.

In fact, the community’s population has seen a general decline, and it continues to lack much ethnic diversity when compared to other Philadelphia neighborhoods, according to Gupta.

“Unless we become part of the trend … we will likely continue to see population decline, which is not in anybody’s interest,” he said.

City neighborhoods that do experience an increase in immigrant residents tend to see the sprouting up of ethnic-run businesses as well, Gupta said.

Unfortunately, Mt. Airy, which has  small Asian and Latino populations, has not experienced that same cultural change.

The idea behind the group’s application, he said, was that if immigrants had a reason to go to Mt. Airy, they might start settling down in the neighborhood, be it opening up businesses or buying homes.

The proposed immigrant center, would come complete with flexible commercial space for startup businesses, provide IT access, essentially “all of the rudimentary basics you need in a commercial setting, but much lower startup costs than getting your own bricks and mortar,” Gupta said.

While the hub would be designed to serve just about anyone, Gupta said he has thoughts of partnering with a group such as the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, (on which he serves as board vice chair), which focuses on integrating recent arrivals into the local economy.

Choosing among finalists

The proposal from the Central Roxborough Civic Association would create a toolkit for local residents to help maintain “walkable, livable neighborhoods” by proposing zoning designations called Neighborhood Conservation Overlays. NCOs help preserve historic or culturally-significant parts of a community past what is generally specified in zoning code. 

A total of $5 million in funding is at stake, with the Knight Foundation saying it will award grant money at the city, neighborhood and block levels to those who came in as finalists with the challenge.

There were 126 finalists in all, according to Carol Coletta, vice president for Community and National Initiatives at Knight’s headquarter office, located in Miami.

Twenty of the finalists were from Philadelphia, and aside from Mt. Airy USA included ideas submitted by Drexel University, the City Parks Association of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission and others.

“Philadelphia had an outsized share of good ideas,” Coletta said, praising the City of Brotherly Love’s participation in the challenge.

While Philly represented 12 percent of overall applications, it had 16 percent of the finalists.

Winners will be announced in March. 

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