Planning Commission accepts “quality of life” plan for Eastern North Philadelphia

The Asociación de Puertorriqueños en Marcha – otherwise known as The Association of Puerto Ricans on the March or simply APM – has worked to improve Eastern North Philadelphia neighborhoods for 41 years, but the plan accepted by the city planning commission Tuesday is different than the others, said APM Deputy Vice President Jennifer Rodriguez.

Our Community, Our Ideas: North Philadelphia Quality of Life Plan doesn’t focus only on the physical environment, like most master plans, Rodriguez said after the vote. It also takes aim at boosting residents’ income and wealth, improving the vitality of neighborhood businesses, increasing the number of community leaders, fostering environmental and residents’ health, and supporting local arts and cultural events. Read the plan and learn more here.

“Just focusing on the buildings doesn’t quite do that,” Rodriguez said. The new plan does work in conjunction with a more typical master plan that was created in 2003 and will be updated this year or next, she said. On April 10, APM will hold a ground-breaking ceremony for a transit-oriented townhouse development at the foot of Temple’s SEPTA station – a project imagined in that earlier plan.

The quality of life plan was developed over the past year by APM, more than 200 community residents and other stakeholders, and 50 organizations, including the city’s planning, commerce, streets and police departments, Community Planner David Fecteau told commissioners. These groups worked together with the Philadelphia Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), which selected eastern North Philadelphia for the creation of the plan as part of its Sustainable Communities Initiative. The plan covers the area between Lehigh and Cecil B. Moore and American to 9th, and also the rectangle between 6th, 9th, Cecil B. Moore and Berks, Fecteau said. Neighborhoods include West Kensington, South Kensington, Olde Kensington, Norris Square and Ludlow.

A key objective among goals to creating a healthier environment is reducing crime, Rodriguez told the commission. “Crime is our residents’ biggest concern.”

APM has begun working with the city’s 26th Police District and LISC to provide community classes in crime prevention. Participants learn that it takes a perpetrator, a victim and a place for crime to occur, Rodriguez said, and they learn that by eliminating one or more of these factors, they can prevent crime.

“People don’t commit crimes if they can be seen,” she said in example. So developers are encouraged to build houses with front porches. Businesses must have windows facing the street. Fences that can be seen through are encouraged. Seemingly simple steps like turning a light on at night or trimming landscaping can make a big difference, Rodriguez said after the meeting.

The plan area has many vacant buildings and properties, Rodriguez said during the meeting. Even blocks that have been revitalized in previous efforts are likely to have at least one vacant parcel. But vacant properties that the city has cleaned, filled with grass or other minimal landscaping, and fenced with white, picket fencing, tend to stay clean, she said. Properties closed off with chain-link fence? Not so much. The different visual clues send vastly different messages, she said. The stabilized properties send a message that the place is cared for, and that seems to be respected, she said. Chain-link or cyclone fencing seems to say “We are fearful. Bad things happen here,” and attract dumping and crime.

The plan calls for the creation of a “multi-generational network of existing and emerging leaders.” APM is working with Temple University to create a Leadership Academy where prospective leaders can learn the skills they will need.

Among the goals the plans sets for community leaders: Advocating for school reform. The plan also calls for the creation of programs aimed at keeping students in school.

To increase residents’ wealth and income, financial literacy education and services will be developed.

A marketing campaign will encourage residents to support local businesses, and classes will be offered for prospective entrepreneurs.

The plan also looks at the physical environment. It calls for reducing blight by re-purposing vacant land, improving streets and public spaces with targeted street and gateway improvements, lighting and streetscape, offering property owners incentives and workshops to maintain, repair or rehab property and providing a range of housing to promote a diverse community.

Planning staff recommended acceptance of the plan, in part because it matches up with goals in the city-wide portion of the comprehensive plan. Planners have not yet begun work on the more tailored, district-level comprehensive plan. Fecteau noted that planners may consult with the accepted community plan when building the district plan.  (The commission adopts plans created by city entities, but accepts plans created by other agencies. The planning commission or any other regulatory agency in the city may, but will not have to, consult the APM plan when making decisions about the area.)

Deputy Mayor and Commission Chairman Alan Greenberger asked about one of the ways in which presenters said the plan met comprehensive plan goals – promoting an increase in local food production.

APM hopes to connect with existing community farmers and USDA and Food Trust programs to get quality food into the hands of a “largely low-income” population, Fecteau said, but the goal is to literally foster the production of food on what is now vacant property.  This will require some zoning changes, he said, but there are many areas that were once industrial that could lend themselves to urban farming. “They can’t do it right now, legally,” Fecteau said.

Greenberger was also assured that APM and partners are getting advice on related-topics such as whether vegetables could be grown in the ground in such areas, even with soil remediation, or if they would need to be grown in other ways. (Some urban farms use raised beds or hydroponic systems, for example.)

LISC Philadelphia program officer Sarah Sturtevant said across the country, the National LISC Sustainable Communities Initiative has done work in 20 cities and rural areas, and that the folks at HQ are very pleased with the Eastern North Philadelphia plans, which is why it provided $1.6 million in funding toward planning and project implementation during 2011. Of that, $1 million was for a loan on the Paseo Verde Transit Oriented Development project at 9th and Berks, near the Temple station, mentioned above, Sturtevant later said. The other $600,000 was for a variety of projects including support of the planning process.

Sturtevant further praised APM for the level of community involvement with the plan. In many cases, the community involvement portion ends after the planning is done, but here, there are plans for continued community engagement, through quarterly meetings, the Leadership Academy and other means.

LISC Philadelphia is also working in West Philadelphia. Learn about that here.

Planning Commissioner Nilda Ruiz, who is President and CEO of Asociación de Puertorriqueños en Marcha,  recused herself from the vote.

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