New civic group looks to bring another voice to the table in East Falls

 (L to R) East Falls Forward officers Angela Velez, Juliet Geldi and Silje Roalsvik (Bastiaan Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

(L to R) East Falls Forward officers Angela Velez, Juliet Geldi and Silje Roalsvik (Bastiaan Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

There’s a new kid on the civic group block in East Falls.

Earlier this month, residents launched East Falls Forward, a free-to-join organization with a simple, but ambitious goal: make the Northwest Philadelphia neighborhood more walkable, sustainable and business-friendly.

Improving Ridge Avenue — “the face of the neighborhood” — is priority number one.

“It would be nice to have a coffee shop or a bike store … so that East Falls isn’t just a pit stop,” said Angela Velez, who chairs the civic.

Velez, who is an attorney, moved to East Falls in March. She said the group was created following a series of casual conversations with neighbors who “had the same goals.”

That includes the group’s other two officers, vice chair Juliet Geldi, an architect, and secretary Silje Roalsvick.

“It was actually a very natural process,” said Velez.

EFF hopes to become what’s known as a registered community organization. The designation, awarded by the city, would give the group a seat at the table and, importantly, some real sway when developers or residents come looking for neighborhood support for a project that needs new zoning.

While construction can move forward without community approval, the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment seriously considers what an RCO thinks of a project before ruling.

The deadline to submit an application to become an RCO is June 30.

“I hope that maybe with two strong voices our side will be heard more clearly,” said Velez.

The neighborhood is also home to the East Falls Community Council, a decades-old civic that, until now, has been the primary place for residents to come together to work on neighborhood issues.

That’s left some EFCC officers feeling a bit funny about East Falls Forward. President Barnaby Wittels doesn’t have anything against the group’s existence, but he also doesn’t really see the point.

“If you have a community organization that’s established and working and open to all, why do you need another one?” said Wittels.

But, he added, “it’s a free country.”

Velez said she hopes EFF can work collaboratively “with all of the residents of East Falls” and that she doesn’t see membership with either civic needing to be “mutually exclusive.”

“I absolutely believe to have a conversation you need more than one voice,” she said.

The two groups, however, will likely have different stances on issues, particularly when it comes to development. One project already has the potential to illustrate this point.

The Philadelphia Housing Department has selected the Pennrose Development company to build a 96-unit apartment building on a vacant plot at the corner of Ridge Avenue and Merrick Road, seconds from the neighborhood’s commercial heart.

The units are expected to be market-rate and affordable. EFCC isn’t exactly thrilled about that prospect.

“At a certain point, density negatively affects other development. There’s only so much an area can sustain,” said Wittels.

“I would say the same if it was 96 units of luxury apartment,” he added. “It’s about sustainable and beneficial growth.”

There are also concerns about traffic congestion. Not far away, another developer is building 149 rental units.

East Falls Forward sees things a bit differently — that having more people along Ridge could bring more businesses there.

Gina Snyder, executive director of the East Falls Development Corporation, said her organization would work with East Falls Forward and the East Falls Community Council.

In her mind, East Falls can only benefit from having more people wanting to make it better.

“It’s great for people to feel like they have a voice in the neighborhood and want to participate,” said Snyder.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.