Among many conversations about Chelten Avenue that took place at Monday night’s planning meeting in Germantown, one exchange seemed to crystallize both the present reality and the challenges ahead.
At one of the large, round tables where residents and business owners marked up maps of the Chelten corridor with a wish list of improvements, LeRoi Simmons and Carolyn Massey sat next to each other. Both are longtime Germantown residents and both part of the largely African-American middle class that has been the backbone of commercial life in the neighborhood for decades.
But only Simmons, a local civic activist who owns a salon and spa on Germantown Avenue, regularly shops in the neighborhood and specifically, along Chelten Avenue. Massey, like many in town, is not satisfied with the local retail offerings and usually drives to other neighborhoods or the suburbs to shop.
“I live here, but I don’t always want to drive someplace to buy things. I’d like to just walk and get stuff,” Massey said.
To Simmons, there’s a shift in thinking needed to bring more people back to Chelten Avenue.
“I’d like to see people experience what’s here,” he said. “Because people are shopping here. Maybe you aren’t, but plenty of people are.”
The difficulty, both agreed, was serving existing customers while bringing in new businesses, customers and money.
Not as dire as it’s made out to be
Despite a recent New York Times description of Chelten Avenue as “a hard-luck strip of check-cashing stores and takeout restaurants,” commercial occupancy is holding at 78.5 percent, said Matt Wysong, the city’s Northwest community planner.
“It is by no means a dead, or dying, commercial corridor,” he said.
In recent years, though, as the Germantown Avenue cultural and historic corridor received attention and improvement, Chelten Avenue has drifted. Wysong is leading the effort to put together a community-based plan for streetscape improvements for the Chelten corridor.
While it isn’t focused on the ongoing dispute over the Chelten Plaza shopping center, several of the issues Wysong is addressing — retail mix, street condition, walkability and community identity — are playing out within it.
Of the 275 ground-floor commercial spaces along Chelten Avenue between Morris and Baynton streets, 216 are occupied, with 59 vacant. More concerning is the current retail mix — heavy on take-outs, hair and wig shops, clothing stores and service-based offices, with sit-down restaurants, banks and hardware stores making up less than 5 percent of current offerings, Wysong said.
Desirable, not just convenient
Due to its location along several bus routes and within steps of train stations, Chelten Avenue remains busy, but it lacks things like trash cans, bike racks and plantings that help to make shopping districts desirable, not just convenient.
Wysong asked groups to do two things. First, identify areas for high-impact beautification projects and list specific ideas for those spots. Then, using a mock budget and a menu of choices, pick a design theme for items like benches, lighting and paving.
At the tables, discussions were detailed and varied. Some praised recent community work at Vernon Park and said existing public art and statuary could be a natural starting point for improvement projects.
Others focused on improving pedestrian crossings, and making areas where commuters get on and off buses cleaner, safer and more welcoming. Lighting was a major concern, as were the solid security grates that leave the street feeling “desolate” and “scary” at night.
Cindy Bass, the incoming 8th District City Councilperson, said she came to the meeting to hear directly from residents about Chelten Avenue. Bass will take over the seat being vacated by Donna Reed Miller, whose role in the Chelten Plaza issue has come under fire.
Bass continued her official refusal to take an official position on Chelten Plaza or other ongoing issues until she takes office, but her concerns were apparent.
“I don’t want to see a great avenue that the people of Germantown can’t afford to shop at,” Bass said.
Wysong said planners will collect and study public feedback and put together a draft plan for the Chelten Avenue corridor. Another round of public meetings on that will follow, likely early next year, with a final plan issued in the Spring.
The second meeting will take place today at 7 p.m., at the Germantown YMCA, 5722 Greene St.
Contact Amy Z. Quinn at email@example.com