Penn team wins Bacon competition

Dec. 1

By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly

For this year’s student competiton, the Ed Bacon Foundation asked entrants to focus on a Philadelphia neighborhood that has fallen on tough times. The choice was Ludlow.

The first-place team, from the University of Pennsylvania, developed a plan to rev up Ludlow by creating jobs and recreation areas, building housing designed to lure permanent residents, and better connecting Ludlow to Temple University, Northern Liberties and other neighborhoods.

“The two biggest challenges we saw for the neighborhood were the copious amounts of vacant land and the elevated regional rail structure,” said team member Linda Meckel, 26, a native of Piedmont, Ca.

She and teammates Mary Itz, 26, of Houston; Andrea Nair, 27, of Madison, Wisc., and Lauren Swiston, 23, of Baltimore, call for an urban farm that would provide both employment for residents, and access to fresh produce.

“Encouraging green building practices and new businesses like urban farming are elements underlying this design which will create a lasting, competitive neighborhood,” Itz wrote in an email.

They would turn some of the area’s many vacant lots into homes and others into parks. “A current aerial view of Ludlow is striking,” Swiston said. “Vacant lots provide the only notable green space!”

Their plan calls for a new train station at Jefferson and 9th street to allow better movement between Ludlow and the rest of the city for Ludlow residents and visitors alike.

The team, made up of urban planning majors, did not want to repeat the mistakes of past urban revitalization. They wanted to keep the neighborhood’s treasures – including its current residents. The new homes would have a mix of prices – some at market rate, some more affordable.

“We carefully examined most of the buildings in the neighborhood to determine if they were in good condition, or if they were historic structures,” Nair, 27, said. “If they were, we tried to work them into our plan.”

The team from Penn, the other student winners, and the Foundation’s 2008 professional award recipient, John O. Norquist, who is president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism and a past mayor of Milwaukee, will be honored at an event Tuesday evening. Norquist will also provide the keynote address.

PlanPhilly asked the student winners to do a little more homework and share some of their thoughts on Ludlow and planning. Here’s what they said, in their own words:

PlanPhilly: Why or how did you become interested in design?

Andrea Nair: I have a greater focus on development and revitalization, however, urban design is the kind of thing that people don’t notice when it’s done right, but becomes obvious when done poorly. I like being able to improve people’s day-to-day routines, and possibly even their quality of life through good design.

Lauren Swiston: I have always had a fascination with the built environment and how good design can make or break a place. As a planner, I tend to concentrate more on how physical growth and development help to shape an area through job creation, tax benefits, or social enhancement. However, the way a place makes a person feel and act is equally important — good design enhances quality of life by encouraging walk-ability, social interaction, and convenience in day-to-day life, all at the same time.

Linda Meckel: I have always been interested in what makes places successful, and most often it is good design. As a city planner, ensuring that places are successful is my primary objective, so learning what works and what doesn’t is extremely important.

Mary Itz: The urban environment greatly impacts daily life. The ways in which citizens interact with their surrounding environment and interact with each other within that environment interest me. Although I am focusing on community and economic development, I understand the need for good design in all aspects of planning and development to create successful places.

PP: What made you want to be a part of this competition?

AN: This is a very interesting area of the city. It is close to City Hall and Center City and touches the borders of Temple University and the successfully revitalized neighborhood of Northern Liberties. Yet, this growth and rejuvenation has largely skipped over Ludlow. There are many opportunities here and it is very realistic that a strong plan could change the negative course that Ludlow has been on. This competition was the perfect venue to advance our own vision for the area.

LS: I am very interested in how planning and design can help disinvested neighborhoods. Traditional developers and investors often avoid these areas due to increased development risk or past project failures. However, they neglect to consider the connections that can be formed with other parts of the city, or the needs and desires of the community. Ludlow is one such community which has as many opportunities as it does problems — the opportunities may be more difficult to find, but are extremely rewarding for the community when capitalized upon.

LM: In our workshop class last spring, our study area was along Girard Avenue to 7th Street, so I was interested in this competition because it was another chance to further explore this area of Philadelphia.

MI: I thought this design competition was a wonderful way to create new and bold ideas for an area of near north Philadelphia that I had become familiar with through various classes at the University of Pennsylvania. The challenges facing Ludlow are certainly not isolated, and design ideas that will be successful here could be contextualized and used in other areas of the city or country.

PP: Were you familiar with the Ludlow neighborhood before the competition? If so, how? And if not, what did you do to familiarize yourself with it?

AN: I was somewhat familiar with the area. In addition to extensive research about Ludlow, my other teammates and classmates had more work experience in the area and were able to provide insight into what the challenges and opportunities were in the area.

LS: Personally, I was only mildly familiar with Ludlow before the competition, though a few of my teammates had worked in the area on a previous project. They brought me up to speed about neighborhood conditions, and we did additional research to learn about the challenges and opportunities presented in the area.

LM: I was somewhat familiar with the area, but not specifically the neighborhood. Besides analyzing the demographics and economics, one of our classmates had worked in the neighborhood during the summer and helped us figure out more of the specific needs and wants of the community. Our group thought that any solution we proposed must be wanted by the community in order to work.

MI: I became familiar with the area when I worked with a group of students to produce a commercial corridor plan for a section of Girard Avenue adjacent to the study area. During the project last spring, I was able to meet with community groups, business owners, and residents in the area. For the competition, the group performed a demographic summary of the Ludlow neighborhood and spoke with a classmate who has worked in Ludlow.

PP: What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the Ludlow neighborhood?

AN: The biggest challenge for Ludlow will be balancing the old with the new, and not entirely displacing the current population. In order for Ludlow to be successful, it will need to attract major new development and new people. Because of the large amounts of vacant land, it is difficult to stitch together the existing fabric – in some areas, a complete overhaul is necessary. With that in mind, we also felt very strongly that it is important to incorporate the existing community and develop a plan that meets their needs and fits into their lifestyle.

LS: I think that Ludlow suffers most from the large amount of vacancy and transience in the community. When more than 20 percent of housing units are vacant and renters outnumber owners 82 percent to 18 percent, respectively, it is extremely difficult to create a strong sense of community. Short-term residents usually do not feel tied to a place, and they are less likely to actively campaign for its revitalization. Ludlow would benefit greatly from a stable base of homeowners who have a stake in the community and will work for improvements.

LM: The two biggest challenges we saw for the neighborhood were the copious amounts of vacant land and the elevated regional rail structure.

MI: Due to the blight removal and clearance strategies of past decades, Ludlow has large amounts of vacant land and many deteriorating buildings. The neighborhood has become known for certain characteristics other than being a competitive neighborhood within the city. A challenge of rebuilding Ludlow will be to discern between wanted and unwanted development, as all development will not necessarily result in the desired goals of the community. Also, as development progresses within the neighborhood, promoting affordable housing and cultural integration are important challenges.

PP: What was the hardest part about tackling the Ludlow assignment? Was there a particular goal that was especially difficult to meet? How did you meet it?

AN: We were conscious of the need and importance of keeping existing buildings, but the challenging aspect was deciding which were more susceptible to change and would be better suited being deconstructed and repurposed. We carefully examined most of the buildings in the neighborhood to determine if they were in good condition, or if they were historic structures; and if they were, we tried to work them into our plan. If buildings were blighted and deteriorating, we thought that replacing those buildings would be better for the community in the end.

LS: Our group agreed from the beginning that we did not want to turn Ludlow into a gentrified, exclusionary area where existing residents would not feel welcome. It was difficult to determine which types of new development would be most appropriate for existing community members, but yet would draw in new residents and employees from around the city. We decided to use a strategy of combining new development with renovation and reuse of existing structures, to preserve and enhance the historic community fabric. This way, existing residents would feel comfortable in their community, Ludlow would be attractive to newcomers, and we could provide visual and physical connections to adjacent neighborhoods.

LM: The most difficult part for me was determining how the interventions we were making within the neighborhood would integrate and connect with the greater area in general. It was helpful for us to think about these challenges at multiple scales, including as far reaching as the city center. By doing this we made sure that our design interventions were connecting the neighborhood back into the fabric of the city.

MI: The Ludlow neighborhood is in a wonderful location near Center City and Temple University; however one of the most complex parts of the assignment was finding a way to connect Ludlow to adjacent neighborhoods as well as other areas of the city. We created a place where residents will want to live but also visit due to employment, shopping, or recreational activities. It was also important to connect the past with the present and we accomplished this by including buildings that would fit the fabric of Philadelphia city life.

PP: What element of your design are you proudest of and why?

AN: When we first sat down and started looking at a map of the area we were surprised by just how close Ludlow is to Temple and Northern Liberties. We really wanted to make a direct and clear connection between these two neighborhoods and decided to put in the large semi-programmed open space that bridges the divide between the surrounding neighborhoods. Additionally, we wanted to increase the density of Ludlow and introduced several low- and mid-rise buildings into the area; this is a good opportunity to demonstrate the possibility and feasibility of infill development in Philadelphia. The large swaths of vacant land in the City have long been a negative attribute, however, today they are an opportunity that should be harnessed for future development.

LS: I am most proud of the way we incorporated public open space into the project. A current aerial view of Ludlow is striking — vacant lots provide the only notable green space! We decided to use much of this vacant land to our advantage, by transforming it into a system of interconnected park space. Large green spaces contain programmed and unprogrammed areas which can be used for family gatherings, informal ball games, or community farmers’ markets. Residential and commercial blocks are linked by hiker-biker paths, encouraging a mix of transportation options throughout the neighborhood. As a highlight of the open space, we proposed to renovate the Cruz Recreation Center into a state-of-the-art aquatics and sports facility. It will put Ludlow on the map! We made all of these recommendations based on the stated desires of community members to have more recreation options for their children and families.

LM: I was personally very excited about the reuse of the industrial building at 5th and Oxford to a swimming complex. As someone who has been involved in competitive swimming and water polo all my life, I have been to many pools around the world, during all seasons, and have seen how they become centers of community, in addition to providing for recreation. There are very few pools in Philadelphia that are competitive to pools elsewhere, especially the suburbs. This is important to attract people back to the city and make neighborhoods within the city competitive to those in the suburbs.

MI: I am very proud that we incorporated many different concepts to create a complete neighborhood that can be a comfortable place for many different kinds of residents from families to students. I am also proud that we created a neighborhood that can be competitive in Philadelphia without giving up its historic character by reusing buildings and filling in the fabric with modern buildings that build upon the neighborhood character.

PP: Do you think this design could be implemented fully? Or that some elements of it could be used by the neighborhood? What would be the easiest things to implement, and what would be the hardest and why? Please include some discussion of cost here – it’s OK if you don’t know exactly how much things cost, but it seems there are some elements of the design that would be quite expensive, while others would not take nearly as much money.

AN: Over time, this plan can be fully implemented, as with any plan it will take political and financial commitment to see it through. We are proposing quite a bit of new construction, which costs more in Philadelphia than in other cities; for that reason it may be easier to work with the existing buildings first, strengthen that infrastructure, and then begin on the new construction. This site is also ideally suited for a TIF district and other public-private financing options. Starting with the development of the recreation center makes sense; the current community would be the first to benefit and hopefully provide support for the continued build out of the plan.

LS: We created our design so that it could be feasibly implemented. We feel that the scale of the buildings and the density of development are appropriate for the neighborhood, and that the new green space evens out the increase in density. We hope to rely greatly on private investment to implement the plan, especially with higher-density commercial and residential buildings. Affordable housing would need to be leveraged by the city for the developers to cover their costs. Though the city of Philadelphia tends to shy away from tax increment financing, this would be a great place to put it to use. Financing could also be available through the New Market Tax Credits, or the area could be designated as an empowerment zone. The multi-story urban farm would likely be expensive, but could be scaled down. The city would likely be responsible for the renovation and maintenance of the recreation area, though our team also discussed innovative financing techniques like corporate partnerships or sponsorships to enable this change to occur. It also might be challenging to add a SEPTA station where we have proposed it, as there are many political issues tied to these decisions.

LM: The most difficult part of the design to implement would be to add a train station at Jefferson and 9th Street. When we added this element to the neighborhood we felt that it would be important to mitigate the barrier that the rail line creates in the neighborhood, but that might not be completely realistic or feasible. In terms of cost, the park system could be more difficult to implement, however, by getting buy-in from the institutions in the area, such as Temple or other potential employers in the area, the park becomes not only more feasible, but essential to knit the community together. One of the advantages of the neighborhood is its proximity to Temple. Therefore, the easiest portion of the design to implement would be the facilities geared toward students and creating the main street area. Building up the recreation center would be easy to implement as well, although probably not now considering the city’s financial situation. Finally, the farm would be extremely feasible to implement, but would do best if it is tied to the park system.

MI: Through planning and coordination between public, private, and nonprofit entities this plan could be implemented to the fullest extent. Working with Temple University and developers to create residential and entertainment areas friendly for students and faculty would begin to build the neighborhood through private investment. To ensure that future buildings will be durable and sustainable, suggested design guidelines for new developments can be created to include green building techniques as well as standard guidelines. An expensive project for the public sector to undertake would be the development and management of the recreational center and pool. However, the creation and upgrading of these public spaces will promote additional investment in the area that would be beneficial for the city in the long term.

PP: Regardless of cost, what are the elements of your design that you consider the most vital to making your vision work? In other words, if the community could only do two or three of the things you suggest, which ones would you want them to focus on?

AN: The link between Temple and Northern Liberties and drawing in new people is essential for the long-term survival of Ludlow. Fully developing the park is probably the most important part of our plan. A close second is the new housing we are proposing, a stable community will provide the foundation for continued development to occur.

LS: It is most important that new development is urban and dense, not the suburban-style development that has happened recently. The most important parts of our design are the park and recreation area, the farm, and the additional housing units. The park and recreation area act as a green spine of the community, and will draw outsiders to the area. The farm will serve as a community employment center, but will also provide a much-needed source of fresh, healthy food. The additional housing units, both affordable and market-rate, would repopulate Ludlow with permanent residents who will be vital to its ongoing success.

LM: To make our vision work, the main element that knits the neighborhood together and connects it to the surrounding neighborhoods is the park system. This green infrastructure will provide the backbone for development and density in the area. Therefore the park system would be the top priority.

MI: The diagonal park space connecting Temple University to Girard Avenue is important to the overall design. In addition, creating a well managed recreation center will not only offer a wide variety of recreational activities but also will provide opportunities for neighborhood residents as well as residents of other parts of the city. Finally, it is important that the community promote innovative ideas to the neighborhood. Encouraging green building practices and new businesses like urban farming are elements underlying this design which will create a lasting, competitive neighborhood.

PP: What evidence of good planning do you see in Ludlow as it exists today? What evidence of poor planning?

AN: The renewed investment from the Philadelphia Housing Authority is a positive step forward. Though the PHA has the land for low-density development, Ludlow is better suited as a mix of low and medium density; this allows for a mixed-use community, instead of only residential. Being able to use public transportation and meet most of your daily needs within a five to ten minute walk from home is becoming increasingly important. The City has an opportunity to build on the reinvestment from the PHA and ensure increased sustainable development for Philadelphia in the future.

LS: The number of vacant lots serve as a reminder of planning failures in Ludlow. They are scars on the community, both physically and emotionally. The new suburban-style development is a sign of renewed investment in the area, but exhibits inappropriate scale and character for the neighborhood.

LM: There is work by many local groups that are helping to strengthen the community. Unfortunately poor planning at the city level has occurred within this neighborhood. The vacancy indicates that there was no long term plan for the neighborhood. However, the prospects for this neighborhood are fantastic, and it is strategically situated to take advantage of the investment and development occurring in the Temple area and the Northern Liberties neighborhood.

MI: Today, the development of affordable housing and homeownership programs in Ludlow are examples of good planning in response to the pervasive vacant lots from blight removal strategies of the past planning eras. There are many strong community groups active in or nearby the Ludlow neighborhood that I believe will continue to strengthen the community with good planning.

Contact the reporter at

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal