Eastwick starts community-oriented planning process hoping to rewrite the history of urban renewal

A new era started this Tuesday for neighbors in Eastwick. For the first time ever, representatives from the community sat at the same table with city planners and agencies to decide what can—and should—be done in their community.

The last time the city developed a plan for Eastwick was sixty years ago. Residents weren’t invited to the table back then. The plan was a disaster.

After decades of dealing with the impacts of what was called the largest urban renewal project in the country, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA) officially launched a new planning and feasibility study to decide the future of Lower Eastwick’s 190 acres of publicly owned land. Later in the day, a steering committee composed of 12 members of the community and six different city agencies held their first meeting.

“It’s been a long time,” Terry Williams, president of Eastwick Friends and Neighborhood Coalition, told PlanPhilly. “Given the history of Eastwick, it goes back as late as the Housing Act of 1949 when urban renewal was initiated throughout the country. It is now 2017, and we’re at a point where we can look forward to doing urban renewal in a better way.”

In December 2015, after five years of pressure from Eastwick residents and environmental activists, the City of Philadelphia and PRA reached a deal to return 134 acres of land under a lease option with New Eastwick Corporation/Korman (NEC) to the city. The resolution ended an urban renewal process that started in 1961, encompassing 2,500 acres of land and four stages of development.

In December, a selection committee that included two community members alongside agency representatives picked Interface Studio to draft a development and implementation plan for those 134 acres, plus some additional nearby land owned by the School District and PRA. PRA and PHL will jointly fund the study.

“This is a community that has felt the negative impacts of urban renewal for decades, that has large portions of the neighborhood that are unbuilt, and—significantly—is a neighborhood whose residents feel that their voice has not been heard and has not been part of the process for a very long time,” said PRA Executive Director Gregory Heller at an informational meeting held with members of the press. “It’s our intentions through this project to—at least partially—try to overcome some of those issues.”

Williams agreed, saying the community is very hopeful and excited about this project, and  see it as an opportunity to “rewrite the urban renewal history with a new kind of urbanism and development” that is economically and environmentally sustainable.

Lower Eastwick Public Land Strategy
(Interface Studio LLC)

Getting all the stakeholders to agree to a common vision for the reuse of these lands won’t be easy. And one of the challenges anticipated by Scott Page, a principal at Interface Studio, will be bringing everyone involved together to understand the environmental factors and constraints that exist, and heal from the trauma from past planning.

On top of the displacement and disinvestment that the neighbors have experienced in the last 60 years, Eastick also faces serious environmental issues. The neighborhood is within FEMA’s Special Hazard Area, or 100-year floodplain, meaning it’s a high-risk flooding zone. Because it was built on the Darby Creek’s marshlands, the soil is unstable, and some houses are sinking. Eastwick is also adjacent to two Superfund sites and has endured years of industrial pollution.

“We have a long legacy of trying to redevelop in the context of these environmental factors and it’s hard to overcome what is your essential identity as a low-lying area,” Page said.

But according to the Lower Southwest District Plan, there is also a strong need for economic development,better transit and pedestrian connections in the neighborhood. Although there is potential for new commercial and industrial development, that could stand in direct conflict with the need to preserve land that could act as a buffer that absorbs stormwater and reduce flooding.

“Balancing those two aspects—and understanding that we have to really keep both in mind, and work with the community to identify the right balance, but also, what is possible with respect to the actual reuse of this sites—is a challenge,” Page said. “Part of the opportunity of the study is to do the [environmental] research to really understand which parts of the sites have real opportunity to be something different, and which ones really have to be thought of as something that is maybe green or designed to handle stormwater or flooding.”

For the planning study, Interface Studio has partnered with the University of Orange to find ways to engage the community and make sure their voices are leading the process. The university’s president, psychiatrist Mindy Thompson Fullilove, has worked for more than 30 years with communities affected by inequality and urban renewal.  

“The Eastwick neighborhood has been challenged on every front,” Fullilove said. “All of these assaults have created both social and physical fracture which are heavy, heavy burdens for all the communities: the human communities, the animal communities, the microbiotics of this area.”

To recover from that, Fullilove thinks all the parties need to meet in the same table and be able to talk in the same language, and she hopes she can catalyze that dialogue.

“Her work I think will be very valuable in terms of bringing the right approach and mindset and experience to this study that understands the trauma and impacts of urban renewal and addressed those factors as we go through the planning process,” said PRA’s Heller.

On Tuesday, Interface Studio introduced the rest of his team to the steering committee. The engineering company Parsons Brickenhoff will help understand the transportation and infrastructure challenges and opportunities. Bishop Land Design, a landscape architecture and design studio based in Boston, will research the underlying environmental conditions of the community and frame it’s opportunities. And Real Estate Strategies will study the market potential in Eastwick and how it relates to this sites.

The whole property includes a 128.53-acre, largely residential tract parcel bounded by 84th Street, Lindbergh Boulevard and Mario Lanza Boulevard, a 5.65-acre commercial tract at the northwest corner of 84th Street and Lindbergh Boulevard, the former Pepper Middle School site, the former Communications Technology High School site, and a parcel of land to the north of the Pepper School site.

The study’s steering committee has four members representing Eastwick neighbors, a member of Eastwick business community and representants of the Philadelphia Water Department, PCPC, PRA, Philadelphia Commerce Department, Philadelphia International Airport, and the Office of Sustainability.

Interface Studio is planning to start engaging the community in a couple of months, after conducting a study on the environmental impact.

According to Heller, the resources for carrying out the outcomes of the study are not all in place yet. That means, the action strategy will have to be very specific, said Page.

“We need to be specific on how implementation occurs, we can’t just work with the community to find a vision, drop it on a desk and walk away,” Page said. “We have to identify who is going to do it, how are we going to pay for certain aspects of it, and when can it potentially happen.”

Terry Williams, who will act as the chair of the steering committee on top of being the president of the neighborhood association, told PlanPhilly the biggest need in the community right now is an organizational infrastructure.

“We want the neighborhood to contribute to the city, just like all Philadelphia neighborhoods,” said Williams, who was born in Eastwick. “However, we do need the organizational infrastructure in order to do that. And through this process we see that being developed.”

When asked about the community’s vision for the land, he said there has been some talk about farming the land, some talk about sustainable commercial development, and some talk about open space.

“However, we’re pretty much looking to Scott [Page from Interface Studio] and his professionals to provide the information that would enhance the vision of the community,” Williams said. “So, we’re really excited, and waiting, for that information.”

Gregory Heller with Eastwick Planning Study Steering Committe
Gregory Heller with Eastwick Planning Study Steering Committe

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