Planning Commission approves improvement plan for Germantown-Chelten commercial corridors

Two stretches of Germantown Avenue, one through North Philadelphia and another through its namesake neighborhood, are targeted for improvement in a pair of initiatives that received Planning Commission approval on Tuesday.

The Central Germantown Business District Beautification Plan, which came about after several public meetings and workshops with Germantown residents and civic groups, will focus on the commercial corridors of Germantown and Chelten avenues.

Matt Wysong, the city’s community planner for Northwest Philadelphia, presented the recommendations after gathering input over the last several months.

Areas for attention in Germantown

The Central Germantown plan has three main areas of focus: the Chelten Avenue commercial district, the Germantown Avenue historic corridor and the Maplewood Mall, which was added after input from residents, Wysong said.

Planned as part of a 1966 Germantown Urban Renewal Plan, Maplewood Mall is now a dingy throwback to 1970s design, though Wysong said its intimate scale and pedestrian plazas offer possibility.

In decades past, the Germantown-Chelten corridor was a major shopping district for the city, with landmark buildings housing Sears, Roebuck & Co. and other retailers.

Declines in both population and business traffic began in the 1960s and have worsened over the years.

“Today, we see the decline continuing,” Wysong told the planning commission. “As of 2012 we have a vacancy rate of 21.5 percent, which is double that of what it was in 1996, so this trend still continues.”

Other concerns

Significant problems include poor lighting, a limited mix of retail types, crime and the perception of safety and, perhaps most visibly, the abundant trash that litters Germantown Avenue, gathering along recently-improved sidewalks and curbs.

“The corridor is dirty, it’s always dirty. Trees don’t grow anymore in some places,” said Ernie Freeman, vice president of Germantown Community Connection, who appeared at the meeting to give the Central Germantown plan his endorsement and offer suggestions.

While Freeman acknowledged the efforts of community groups who hold cleanups, he said the city bears some responsibility for enforcing city codes.

Freeman called for partnerships with retail businesses, and a mix of housing stock above street-level businesses to encourage foot traffic and improve retail offerings.

Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger said one thing Germantown can do to help itself in the process is form a stronger community voice.

Unified voice developing

Efforts to that end have begun over the last year, as Germantown Community Connection moves to become the lead civic group bringing together Germantown’s many neighborhood civic groups and community development corporations.

“The thing that’s been missing in Germantown is too many different groups, too many different agendas,” Greenberger said.

Wysong said the plan’s 25 recommendations are a direct result of community input.

Specific ideas

They include a call for a stronger branding and marketing effort for Chelten Avenue, along with streetscaping and better stormwater management.

Other goals include targeted greening, public art and transit-stop improvements.

An initial project would be creating a pedestrian plaza at the front of the Mastery Charter School at Wayne and Chelten avenues, turning what is now a forbidding concrete patio into a more inviting, landscaped area.

Other ideas include creating a rain garden at the Germantown SEPTA station and the creation of a parklet with public art and seating areas at the corner of Chelten and Pulaski avenues, in front of the Chelten Plaza shopping center.

North Philadelphia improvements

The other plan for Germantown Avenue approved on Tuesday will focus on the area near the intersection with Lehigh Avenue, in North Philadelphia.

Formally called the Along the Avenue Economic Development Strategic Plan, it aims to breathe new life into a commercial district that has been eroding for decades.

The targeted area goes from 8th Street to 12th Street, from York Street to Glenwood Avenue, with Germantown and Lehigh avenues running through, community planner David Fecteau told the board.

What had been a thriving commercial area from the 1950s has become a deeply challenged area, with about half the population lost and a 60 percent poverty rate, he said.

The Along the Avenue plan is not a grand vision, but a series of small steps meant to re-ignite a commercial corridor through moves like turning wide intersections such as Germantown Ave. and Huntingdon St. from places where people double-park to pedestrian-friendly plazas with trees and lighting, he said.

Bold new vision

Another component has already begun through a partnership with Philly Painting, a special effort of the Mural Arts program, which has seen artists Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn creating large-scale mural projects that stretch across several buildings.

Fecteau said the former Salvation Army community center on Huntingdon will become an elementary school run through the Hope Partnership for Education, “so it’s going to be put back into productive use and is going to create some positive activity there, which is what we’d like to see.”

Abundant vacant land in the area also presents a challenge, though Fecteau said about 40 vacant lots in the area have either been adopted by local groups for use as gardens or play areas, and others are used as side yards or parking spots by adjacent residents.

Fecteau said a goal would be to find responsible stewards for the lots.

There is also a demand in that area for more subsidized housing, especially for low-income seniors, Fecteau said. Other recommendations include rezoning some formerly properties now classified as commercial to residential uses.

NewsWorks has partnered with independent news gatherer PlanPhilly to provide regular, in-depth, timely coverage of planning, zoning and development news. Contact Amy Z. Quinn at azquinn@planphilly.com.

Editor’s note: The initial story posted referred to the Planning Commission as the Planning Board. It has since been corrected. Sorry for any confusion.

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