Reimagining the East Falls business corridor

The beer distributor needs a more-masculine color scheme and strong, steely signage. The eye doctor’s office looks a little tired and could be more transparent. The pizza shop would benefit from a slice of projecting neon to lure patrons to that end of the avenue.

And, the beloved old building that houses the high-tech firm at the community’s main gateway needs more character and, perhaps, an artist’s touch.

Those are some of the recommendations to freshen up Ridge Avenue in East Falls, a commercial corridor with fantastic potential, but years of unmet expectations.

Reaching out for a helping hand

Gina Snyder, executive director of the East Falls Development Corp., turned for help to the Community Design Collaborative, the nonprofit that provides the pro bono services of architects, designers and other professionals.

Working quietly behind the scenes, but making dramatic visible changes, the Collaborative donates nearly $1 million in services each year to under-served neighborhoods and emerging, transitional communities like East Falls.

The Collaborative awarded East Falls a design grant last summer and recently completed its drawings for façade improvements and construction estimates at six significant locations along Ridge Avenue, providing design consultation worth $17,580 (PDF).

“What we need is for our storefronts to reflect what’s inside,” Snyder said in an interview last week at the EFDC office on Midvale Avenue. “We have some really nice, high-quality businesses happening here, but the exterior message hasn’t been upgraded.

“At some really critical locations, we need the area to look better.”

Focus on good design

Snyder and the EFDC have tried coordinating storefront transformation on their own.

Taking advantage of the city Commerce Department’s program that matches 50 percent of expenses up to a certain amount (depending on location and other variables), the EFDC tackled the redesign of its offices and the prominent Major Wing Lee’s Grocery Store at Ridge and Midvale avenues.

“It was brutally hard work for such small projects,” and it can be extremely expensive, Snyder said. “We learned a lot of lessons, and we saw that sometimes when businesses do their own projects and we don’t have control over it, they can do whatever they want.”

The EFDC also learned that businesses don’t necessarily see the value in the design stage of storefront improvement.

“Some just call up a sign company and their general contractor,” and take the easy, least expensive route which doesn’t lead to the most attractive result, she said. “So, we decided we weren’t going to support any application to the Commerce Department unless the proper design work was done.”

The EFDC also became picky about which businesses it would support.

“We looked at the businesses that were most important, either because they were very prominent or because they were in need of some TLC,” said Snyder, who explained to the owners the significance of their location to the commercial corridor and the riverfront business district as a whole.

Target locations

At East Falls Beverage (4024 Ridge Ave.), one of the locations that is the focus of the Community Design Collaborative plan, the owner was working hard to widen his selection of craft beers.

But, his storefront advertises national brands that provide their product and their own vinyl signage.

East Falls Eye Associates (4189 Ridge Ave.) is introducing interesting choices for frames, and creating a new identity for the business.

But, the storefront retains the 25-year-old look of the previous occupant.

AnBrea’s, the hair stylist at 4141 Ridge Ave., had moved from a location down the street and created a new interior with a beautiful reception area.

But, the exterior is little changed from the previous businesses at that address.

“We have the remnants of old ownership and older buildings, while the businesses themselves are really stepping up their game,” Snyder said.

The EFDC’s new approach is reflected in the choices made for the new sign installed at the gateway to East Falls on Midvale Avenue at Kelly Drive.

Rather than the traditional, wood-carved “Welcome to…” greeting found in many suburban communities, the EFDC turned to an East Falls designer and a Philadelphia University industrial-design professor who reflected the development corporation’s logo and the edgy personality and geographic identify of East Falls itself.

“It’s big, it’s dramatic, it’s sculptural,” Snyder said. “It’s not just an announcement that you’ve arrived in the neighborhood.

“So, we’re saying [that] if we’re going to do something, we going to do it well, and it’s going to be designed. It’s going to go through a process where there’s oversight. We’re not going to do these storefronts until they’re designed by professionals.”

Collaborative beginning

Back in the early 1990s, a small group of young architects from AIA Philadelphia organized a design project in North Philly that involved AIA members from around the nation.

“It galvanized a lot of people who felt afterwards that we’d like to use our skills to help emerging nonprofits,” recalled Linda Dottor, who was among those young architects.

The Community Design Collaborative began as an all-volunteer organization. After a few years, it received AIA funding to hire a part-time staffer, and later received a grant from the city’s Office of Housing and Community Development that led to a more-consistent funding stream.

The nonprofit now has many sources of revenue, and the work in economic development projects is funded by the Commerce Department and through firms that contribute through the Business Privilege Tax.

Since its inception, the Collaborative has worked on 600 projects involving 1,000 volunteers, said Dottor, now the organization’s communications manager.

Last year, the Collaborative completed 25 projects, with volunteers contributing more than 8,000 hours and $920,000 in services.

The donation of $17,000 to $25,000 in professional services leads to the next step, which can mean getting $300,000 from the city to take the design further, Dottor explained, as was the case in a project for Columbus Square Park in South Philadelphia.

A subset of community development projects focuses on commercial corridors, like the East Falls storefront plan. The cost estimates for construction at the six locations on Ridge Avenue range from about $15,500 to $26,000.

Their Northwest Philly involvement

The Collaborative has been involved in a variety of other projects in East Falls and beyond, including the design for Ken Weinstein’s rehabilitation of the Frank Furness-designed St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Germantown into the Waldorf School.

The Collaborative also worked with the Manayunk Development Corporation on redesigning the rear of Main Street businesses to connect with the canal and make it a cleaner, more active waterway.

And, they will be working with Roxborough’s W.B. Saul Agricultural High School on a conceptual master plan for the 130-acre campus, which will seek to unite their properties on both sides of Henry Avenue.

The projects are “all meant to come up with a conceptual design, come up with a preliminary cost estimate, and come up with some basic building blocks of how much space you need, how it should be arranged — all those things you need to know to make a really compelling case to get grants and funding from other sources, or just to get community support in a broad way for what you’re doing,” Dottor explained. “They’re meant to jump-start a project.”

Expressing an identity

In East Falls, as in most of its community development projects, the Collaborative began by recruiting three architects and one cost estimator.

It also brought in a Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia staffer to determine the historical significance of several properties and the preservation guidelines that might come into play.

The architects met with the business owners, looked at images of their buildings, discussed problems and talked about how business was going. And, they made site visits together.

“It’s kind of amazing to me, as an architect, that all business owners don’t do this. But, it’s rare that owners will walk outside their building, turn around and just look at the building,” explained Robin Kohles, the Collaborative’s project manager and liaison to the Commerce Department. “They’re always looking out from the inside of their building.”

The architects pointed out different aspects of the façades and made suggestions the owners hadn’t considered.

“Then, everyone goes home,” Kohles said. “Basically, that’s the end. We send the drawings to Gina, and she and her design committee present them to the business owners.”

Besides the beer distributor, eye doctor and hair stylist, the sites include the Slices pizza shop at 4249 Ridge Ave., the Bulogics firm at 4200 Ridge and a potential new restaurant and bar at 4213 Ridge Ave. (formerly home to the Pour House).

“The idea is to start to get the owners thinking about a master plan, and think, ‘Wow, we could really do this,’ and what pieces they want to do first,” Kohles said. “Then, they’re set up to apply for funding from the Commerce Department or other programs, or just do the work on their own. It broadens their vision.”

For the East Falls project, “the idea is small, low-cost moves that are basically going to help their business,” according to Kohles.

A lot of the conversation around the designs was about the character of East Falls.

“About how it’s kind of muscular, it’s a little gritty, but it has good bones. The team really picked up on that. The designs are kind of gutsy,” Kohles continued. The concepts for the storefronts “don’t all look the same, but they all have a kind of East Falls feel to them.”

What’s next?

While the business owners review the plans and begin thinking about their priorities, Snyder and the EFDC will begin bringing in contractors and discuss estimates.

Then, they will work with the business owners who want to apply for Commerce Department grants.

“Design adds leverage to making good decisions and getting funding,” Dottor said. “Design can often get you a lot farther than you originally thought.”

NewsWorks has partnered with independent news gatherer PlanPhilly to provide regular, in-depth, timely coverage of planning, zoning and development news. Contact Alan Jaffe at

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