Neighborhood group, city officials ponder visions for East Falls’ future

 At Monday night's meeting (L-R) were Barnaby Wittels, Matt Wysong, John Grady and Rosalie Cooper. (Matt Grady/WHYY)

At Monday night's meeting (L-R) were Barnaby Wittels, Matt Wysong, John Grady and Rosalie Cooper. (Matt Grady/WHYY)

At the behest of the East Falls Community Council, a group of residents and city officials asked themselves “What will East Falls look like in 2024?” on Monday night in the interest of developing both a general vision and a comprehensive plan for the hillside neighborhood.

Explaining his rationale for the discussion, EFCC President Barnaby Wittels noted that while individuals and institutions often have multi-year plans, this organizational technique does not often transfer to community groups.

“This is a useful function for a community: To have some idea of where we are going and what we see down the road, instead of simply reacting to things as they come along,” he said.

Demographic stability

Matt Wysong, Northwest community planner for the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, noted that East Falls has benefited from relative demographic stability over the past several decades.

Because of this stability, Wysong projected that current conditions in East Falls would continue without concerted planning efforts.

However, he noted that comprehensive planning for East Falls would reinforce the neighborhood’s positive attributes while addressing areas of concern.

Areas of future focus

Wysong identified two areas that neighborhood leaders will have to focus on for a better 2024: Philadelphia University and the Ridge Avenue commercial corridor.

An EFCC working group established to develop a land-use plan for PhilaU is currently inactive, with no finalized plan issued. However, some neighbors remain concerned that expansion could have adverse impacts on the community.

When describing the business corridor, Wysong said that its location on the edge of the residential district limits community members’ access to it. To address this, zoning measures must be undertaken to encourage residential development along Ridge Avenue, he said.

John Grady, president of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation and East Falls resident, concurred with Wysong’s assessment. He suggested that the neighborhood’s proximity and connection to Center City will drive growth and investment.

“I don’t think it’s a neighborhood where we feel we need to have major new development,” Grady said. “I think we need enough investment and new development for the neighborhood to continue to remain strong and vibrant — marginal changes around the edges where the opportunities present themselves.”

Former Youth Study Center site discussion

With both a vision for the neighborhood and comprehensive planning currently underway — Wysong and the PCPC are currently in the community-outreach phase for developing a “Lower Northwest Philadelphia plan” — EFCC leaders are turning their attention to the site of the former Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institution on Henry Avenue.

Currently for sale by the state, the site was once leased by the city to house the Youth Study Center, a detention center for juvenile offenders. The YSC moved to a permanent home in West Philadelphia in 2013.

Wittels noted that the site would be expensive to develop, given the breadth of the property and the need for extensive asbestos remediation within its buildings. As such, he feared that the site is “prime” for another correctional facility,

“For too long, East Falls has been the place to dump an institution if you can’t figure out what else to do with it,” Wittels said.

EFCC leaders plan to join forces with neighboring civic associations to lobby for community-friendly development at the site.

“If we work together,” said Rosalie Cooper, president of the Ridge Allegheny Hunting Park Civic Association, “we can get a lot of stuff done.”

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