East Passyunk hoping for soda pop funding of pop-up park

May 23, 2010

By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly

Right now, it’s a fairly standard Passyunk Avenue intersection.

But a group of young urban designers are convinced that this spot, where Passyunk Avenue slices diagonally across Morris and 12th streets can – with the support of the community and a relatively small amount of money – become both a green community gathering place and a gateway for the East Passyunk Crossing neighborhood.

The designers are the Planning Collective, a group of recent Penn graduates who wanted to stay in Philly and work together on design and planning projects. For now, all of them have full-time jobs with other entities, and the Collective is their nights-and-weekends passion.

During a recent interview at a coffee shop near the intersection, Planning Collective members Clint Randall and Julie Thompson said that since traditional planning jobs, where a client hires a firm to do a project for them, have been rather scarce during the recession, Collective members decided they needed to take a different approach.

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Planning Collective members Thompson and Randall

Looking through the Imagine Philadelphia documents that outline some of what city planners and residents want to see in the Philadelphia of the future, the Collective found the desire for small parks that could be created quickly, with a small amount of money.

“It’s something that we’ve seen work well in other cities on our travels,” Randall said. In New York and San Francisco, plots of pavement are converted into parks with potted plants, paint, and furniture, he said.  It seemed like the right size project for the Collective to take on. But where in the city should it go?

One key ingredient was a diagonal roadway – that’s what creates a triangle of “no-man’s land” within the intersection, space that can be used for public space without taking up a traffic lane. Randall and Thompson said they also needed an area that was already a destination, so the park would have a built-in audience

“It didn’t take long at all to settle on East Passyunk Avenue,” Randall said.

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With an eclectic mix of hip new shops and restaurants and long-time favorites, this is a busy place. And, Thompson noted, there is very little green space nearby. While there are no precise plans yet, the Collective is imagining about 4,000 square feet of space set off from the traffic with large planters that would hold trees, shrubs and flowers and would also divide the space out of the traffic lanes. No traffic lanes and no legal parking spaces would be eliminated, Thompson said. Tables and chairs and perhaps umbrellas would provide a spot for people to sit and chat, or enjoy food or beverages from the nearby restaurants.  Another section of pavement would become a neighborhood gateway, with more plantings and signage.

With those rough ideas and a location in mind, the Collective called the East Passyunk Crossing Civic Association and the East Passyunk Avenue Business Improvement District and made a proposition: If you support the idea of a pop-up park, we’ll do the design work. And we’ll work to get funding.

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Now with the support of the local organizations and many businesses along the avenue – where the Coalition’s pavement-to-parks campaign fliers are displayed in windows – the Collective is hoping to secure $50,000 from Pepsi Co. through the cola company’s Refresh campaign. It’s up to the public to decide who will win , and it will take a lot of voting from now to the end of the month to do so. To support the project, go the the neighborhood ideas portion of the Refresh website.  Click the $50,000 grants buttons, and then from the “vote for” pull-down menu, select “near you,” and you’ll see the project.

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Randall stands in the intersection, at the outer limit of the largest portion of the proposed park, where the seating would be.

Anyone can vote once a day, every day. Joseph F. Marino, co-chair of East Passyunk Crossing Civic Association, aka EPX, says he does so, faithfully. Both he and East Passyunk Avenue BID Executive Director Renee Gilinger said the proposed project packs a double-punch: Much-needed green space and a vast safety improvement over the current situation.

Marino and his EPX co-chair Darren Fava founded the organization in 2006. Before then, he said, there wasn’t an organization to fight for green space, and it is sorely lacking. There’s a little greenery in a few spots, like at a local high school. When school is in session, people can walk through. But there’s no place for long-time residents and the newcomers who frequent the area to linger with a gelati or people watch or just hang out, Marino said.

Gilinger said the green space would be fantastic, and a pocket park would certainly benefit the business corridor by adding another reason for people to visit the neighborhood. But as happy as that makes her, the safety aspect is even more important, she said.

“That intersection is very difficult. It’s busy for vehicles and pedestrians, and it’s difficult for both to get across it,” she said.

The vast expanse of pavement is a big part of that, she said. The park would define where the cars belong. Marino agrees – he said some pedestrians struggle to make it the whole way across before the light turns – they would have a safe place to wait in the park. And the cars that get “hung up” in the concrete triangle when the signal changes would no longer ever set wheel in that space.

On a recent early afternoon, Margaret Luzzi, 83, was walking in the area. The life-long neighborhood resident said the pocket park “sounds beautiful” and would help further improve the neighborhood, which she described as an up-and-coming place.  A decades-younger man who asked not to be identified said the park would be great during the day, but he was concerned that teenagers would “get loud and rowdy” there at night.

Thompson said in some pocket parks in other places, furniture is taken in at night. The man concerned about rowdiness said that would be a good solution.

If the Pepsi money doesn’t come the Collective’s way, it will not give up on the park, and neither will the civic or business associations. All parties agree that applying for the Pepsi grant coalesced the ideas so that applying for other grants will be much easier. Thompson and Randall said that because the cost to transform the space is relatively low, they might even be able to make it happen with goods and services donations from businesses.

Wherever the money comes from, the project would need something else: City approvals. The Collective has already begun talking to the streets department and planners. And they’ve got one supporter high in the administration already.

“It’s a great idea,” said acting deputy mayor and planning commission executive director Alan Greenberger, who added that he loves going down to the East Passyunk neighborhood. He said the park would only enhance the “super architecture, shopping and entertainment the street already has.

It’s also fantastic that something like this could happen without money from the cash-strapped city, he said. He said a successful East Passyunk pop-up park could serve as a model for similar projects throughout the city. The Collective hopes that’s exactly what happens.

Reach the reporter at kelliespatrick@gmail.com

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