Ridge Avenue revitalization plans move forward

This summer, construction will kick off on a $2.2 million streetscape project for Ridge Avenue in Roxborough, bringing new signage, green space and sidewalks to the area.

After holding onto the combination of federal, state and city funds for the project for several years, Bernard Guet, executive director of the Roxborough Development Corporation, says the nonprofit is finally ready to put them to use. The majority of the funds will go to the improvement of Ridge Avenue from Roxborough to Monastery Avenues, which the CDC designated as the neighborhood’s central business district in its master plan for the street.

The project will transform several parts of the avenue: Huge swaths of the sidewalk will be redone, more than 80 trees will be planted, handicap ramps will be installed, more than 100 planters will be added, and a new Roxborough welcome sign will go up at Rochelle and Ridge Avenues, in order to better introduce people to the neighborhood.

“When you come here now, you don’t know where you are,” says Guet.

The focus of the project is adding more green space to Ridge Avenue. For instance, on the fairly bare block where the Acme parking lot is now located, eight new trees will go in. And in the area surrounding the intersection of Domino Lane and Ridge Avenue, a bus stop will be moved farther away from the street, and trees and shrubs will be added.

“The point is to give Ridge Avenue more landscape, so it doesn’t feel like you’re walking up against a strip mall anymore,” says Anthony Imbiscuso, an associate at Wells Appel, which completed the streetscape improvement designs. “That’s a lot of trees for this type of area, and they’re spaced close together, so it’ll definitely have impact on the quality of space.”

The Roxborough Development Corporation expects to complete the construction by the end of 2011. The CDC is also working on creating a park at 6170 Ridge Avenue, and has gathered $35,000 in funds from the state’s Department of Community and Economic Development for it, but is not prepared to announce any further details.

The streetscape revitalization and park plans go hand-in-hand with the master plan, which Brown & Keener Urban Design completed in hopes of transforming Ridge Avenue into an improved main street that consistently attracts high-quality retail tenants. As Brown & Keener, the Roxborough Development Corporation and other stakeholders were working on the street’s revitalization, however, they came to the conclusion that the city’s zoning code didn’t square with their vision for Ridge Avenue.

“The zoning code had things in it like, when you build a building on Ridge Avenue and set it back, you get a bonus to make it taller,” says Mark Keener, co-founder of Brown & Keener. “Now that’s a rational thing if you’re trying to create parking lots on the street. But in this case, we’re trying to build a real main street. And you don’t build a main street out of parking lots.”

The Roxborough Development Corporation then began to work with City Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr.’s office on a proposed bill amending the city’s zoning code, which would create an overlay on Ridge Avenue between Hermitage Street and Monastery Avenue.

The overlay seeks to make Ridge Avenue in Roxborough a more pedestrian-friendly, viable street, by disallowing vehicle access into parking lots from Ridge Avenue, requiring that every parking lot with more than five parking spaces has landscaping, and prohibiting certain uses, like car washes and gas stations, among other things.

The bill, which Jones introduced in February 2010, is currently sitting on City Council’s calendar.

In the meantime, the Roxborough Development Corporation has been attempting to persuade developers to adhere to the standards laid out in the proposed overlay, without any law to back it up. Sometimes, that works better than you might expect.

On a recent afternoon, Guet stood across the street from Bob’s Diner, at the corner of Ridge and Lyceum Avenues, and pointed to the Roxborough Ridge Commons as an example of what’s to come. Originally, says Keener, a developer wanted to build a strip mall behind a parking lot there. The CDC worked with the developer to place the parking lot in the back instead, and have various tenants — including Citizens Bank, PrimoHoagies, Zesto Pizza & Grill, and Starbucks — face the street.

“The overlay will give these recommendations teeth,” says Keener.

If the bill does pass, though, there’s no telling how long it will stay on the books. The Zoning Code Commission (ZCC) is currently rewriting the city’s zoning code, and it has reduced a number of overlay and special control districts in its proposed draft, which will go to City Council for approval in February. There are nearly 50 of these provisions, which govern everything from permitted building heights to uses, and critics argue that many of them are repetitive, which is why the ZCC wants to limit them. Eva Gladstein, executive director of the ZCC, says that until the bill passes, the ZCC can’t determine whether or not to include the Ridge Avenue overlay in its zoning code draft.

Gladstein says that if the overlay doesn’t make it into the ZCC’s draft by next month, there will still be time to add it, when City Council considers the zoning code rewrite and asks for public comments. Also, she says that the newly created CMX-2.5 district includes a number of the proposed overlay’s restrictions, and that Ridge Avenue in Roxborough may eventually be remapped as CMX-2.5.

But Guet sees things differently. He disagrees with the ZCC’s decision to reduce the number of overlays in the proposed zoning code.

“What is true for Center City is not true for Roxborough, Chinatown, South Street and Manayunk,” he argues. “Those places are totally different, like five different cities. You can’t have one overlay for all of them.”

Still, by talking with Gladstein, Guet says he is hopeful that “in some shape or form, I think the Ridge Avenue overlay is going to stay.”

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