Far Northeast district planning kicks off in Somerton

On Wednesday night the district planning process for the Far Northeast launched in a nursing home on Roosevelt Boulevard. The Philadelphia City Planning Commission’s lead for the region, Greg Waldman, spoke a few words to the five tables of attendees who then began busily poring over the geography of the Far Northeastern reaches of the city.

Only a handful of districts remain in the planning process begun at the start of former mayor Michael Nutter’s second term as part of the city’s comprehensive planning process. To speed the process along the two districts of the Far Northeast, upper (northwest of the boulevard) and lower (southeast of the boulevard), have been combined into one all-encompassing district. Among the neighborhoods included in this phase of district planning: Bustleton, Somerton, Byberry, Ashton, Academy Gardens, Morrell Park, Crestmont Farms, Walton Park, Parkwood, Pennypack Woods, Normandy, Winchester, Winchester Park, and Mechanicsville.

Between twenty and thirty people attended Wednesday’s meeting at the St. John Neumann Center for Rehabilitation and Healthcare. Much of the time was spent around five tables that bore huge maps of the Far Northeast and its streets, parks, schools, and lone stub of a train line. Not counted among the attendees were the large contingent of planning commission staffers, who sat two to a table, and guided residents through the process of identifying the weaknesses, strengths, and opportunities in their corner of the city.

“We did this a little later in the cycle because we wanted more people to come out so we waited until after Labor Day,” Waldman told PlanPhilly. “It’s a little bit more challenging to get people out in the Far Northeast because word spreads more when there is higher density.”

For one of the most auto-centric parts of Philadelphia, roadways were a huge focal point for the groups of residents. (86 percent of Far Northeast commuters commute to work by car, in comparison with 59 percent of Philadelphians overall.)  At one point a SEPTA planner suggested that the Somerton station on the West Trenton line be a focus area for the planning commission. None of the other people at her table agreed.*  

“Northeast people only got one pair of shoes for the rest of their lives,” read one attendee’s note on a map, in reference to the idea that residents spend most of their time in the car and do not walk anywhere. (Only two percent of Far Northeast residents walk to work.)  

Roosevelt Boulevard was identified as a weakness of the Far Northeast by four out of the five tables. Other problem roadways included Woodhaven Road, Welsh Road, and a stretch of Krewstown Road where a SEPTA bus apparently deposits riders on a stretch of street with no sidewalk.

Industrial and commercial vacancies were another major weakness identified by the attendees. In the far northwestern corner of the district, two supermarkets and a K-Mart recently went out of business and on the other end of the map the Philadelphia Mills mall also suffers from periodic waves of vacancy.

Meanwhile the industrial parks erected by PIDC in the 1960s, which sustained many of the city’s manufacturing jobs as industrial capital fled the rest of the city, now suffer vacancy too. The locally famous Nabisco factory, just a mile up the Boulevard from the meeting, is empty as well.

But on the whole attendees didn’t seem to have a declinist narrative about the Far Northeast. The state of the parks and public schools was generally agreed to be strong. “The Torresdale branch of the library is great,” one attendees told his compatriots, “the librarian lives on my block.”

Councilman Brian O’Neill turned up for the meeting briefly, but didn’t stay for long. Before the attendees sat down to map out guidance for the planning commission, they circulated among placards that displayed the Far Northeast’s history, demographics, and facts about its transportation infrastructure (among other statistics).

A particularly impressive graphic showed where all of the different immigrant groups in the Far Northeast hail from. 20 percent of the region’s population is foreign born, the largest proportion of any district in Philadelphia.

Other graphics showed an interesting bifurcation in the Far Northeast with the lower half of the district, below Roosevelt Boulevard, outstripping the upper held of the district in almost every measure taken. The lower Far Northeast, which includes Winchester Park and Mechanicsville, enjoys a homeownership rate of 73 percent, a median income of $55,478, and a poverty rate almost a third that of the city overall.

The upper Far Northeast, which contains Somerton and Bustleton (the hubs of the Russian community), only has a homeownership rate of 61 percent (compared to 54 percent for the city overall), a median income of $50,833, and a poverty rate of almost 12 percent. But 27 percent of its residents have four or more years of college, compared to only 20 percent for the lower Far Northeast.   

The planning commission will now take the feedback gleaned at this meeting and consider where to focus their attentions. Planners also hope those who could not attend this week’s meeting can give feedback online. The fruits of these considerations will be presented at a meeting in November to be held at a location and date as yet to be determined.

*An earlier version of this article inaccurately stated that this SEPTA employee was there in an unofficial capacity. PlanPhilly regrets the error. 

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