Temple Architecture and Planning students envision economic future of East North Philadelphia

Department of Archutecture students share creative design models for Germantown Avenue businesses.

Students in Temple’s Division of Architecture and Environmental Design have developed a clear vision of a viable future for the Germantown Avenue corridor in East North Philadelphia.

It is a vision where economic revitalization has taken a strong foothold. Where residents in the neighborhood just blocks from campus have not only found jobs but have developed their own businesses, providing goods and services not just to their community but well beyond.

During the spring semester, master’s students in the Department of Architecture and graduate and undergraduate students in the Department of Planning and Community Development have worked closely with the Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM) to gain a better understanding of the community’s historic relationship to the commercial corridor; develop economic revitalization plans; and create realistic business models to spur positive change and help East North Philadelphia residents take charge of their neighborhood.

“These projects in many ways are focused on ‘place making’ — temporary ways of revitalizing and activating a space. Examples of place making include the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s pop up parks or the pop up beer gardens that have proven very successful in bringing people into downtown Philadelphia,” said Dr. Lynn Mandarano, Chair of the Department of Planning and Community Development. “There are a lot of vacancies along this section of Germantown Avenue — vacant buildings and empty lots. We focused on immediate — and in some cases temporary — things the community could do to address the needs of current residents while also showing developers that Germantown Avenue is viable.”

According to Mandarano, Community Development students developed an ethnographic survey and analysis of the Eastern North Philadelphia Community, “engaging in interviews, surveys, and participating in community meetings in order to gather qualitative information to understand people, their place, and how it all relates to the revitalization of the commercial corridor.”

“The students have developed a report on the views and feelings of the resident community members about how they value and identify with their community that can serve as an important factor to guide continuing redevelopment,” she said. “The work that our students are doing now isn’t the end of this project or our partnership with APM. It’s provided a strong foundation that we can weave into courses, studios, workshops and service learning projects for the next several years.”

City and Regional Planning student Amelija Sorg-Taylor worked with a team in the graduate planning studio to develop “policy-based and place-based changes to the Germantown Avenue corridor to provide tools to APM to determine how best to revitalize the neighborhood.”

“The graduate planning students have been working APM in coordination with students from the Community Development program and the Department of Architecture to develop a strong economic base for the neighborhood and create more amenities for the community,” she said. “We’ve provided APM with a detailed planning document, including a general assessment for the most feasible projects. We hope that they will be able to apply these tools to improve the overall physical space, encouraging safer, walkable, and vibrant commercial corridor.”

Urban Acupuncture

Rather than seeking to recreate East North Philadelphia and Germantown Avenue from the ground up, students in the Architecture master’s program took an “urban acupuncture” approach, according to Sally Harrison, Associate Professor of Architecture and Director of the Tyler School of Art’s Urban Workshop, an interdisciplinary collaborative designed to explore complex design problems that emerge “in rebuilding neighborhoods in the post-industrial city.”

“It is a form a tactical urbanism. Instead of designing a new 50-block community, this approach focuses on developing a good set of locations in the city that can help catalyze further redevelopment. Like acupuncture, it’s about making pin pricks of change that unblock the latent activity and unrealized energy within a community,” said Harrison. “To do that successfully, you have to understand the urban system from the ground up — housing, transportation, crime, culture, social interactions and opportunities. Our students listened very carefully to APM’s leadership; they really know the pulse of the neighborhood and the needs of its residents.”

According to Harrison, economic development emerged as a major theme for the East North Philadelphia community, but it wasn’t the only concern.  The “four pillars” that her students focused on, she said, became economic and community development, health, sustainability and sociability.

“This project was like nothing the architecture students had experienced before; getting out into the neighborhood, problem seeking as well as problem solving. They understood it’s not just designing housing or commercial districts, it’s the whole complex order of what goes into a community,” she said. “Working collaboratively with the planning students, they gained a better understanding of public policy and resources. Their design ideas were inspired by the research of the planning students and hearing from Temple University Architect Margaret Carney, who, using case studies of similar projects, talked about positive university synergy.”

Taking their understanding of the community and its needs to heart, architecture students developed several “big ideas” for viable business models. Concepts included aquaponics and vertical gardening; re-fabricating cast off clothes to promote skills development; an industrial laundry providing services to Temple; a high end daycare that would also train quality daycare providers; a housing and healthcare center; a child day camp; and a community center, “a gathering place to bring it all together,” Harrison said.

Architecture master’s student Collin Phillips centered his design ideas on food equity — making healthy, affordable foods and vegetables available to all residents.

“We researched viable businesses that reflected as many of the ‘four pillars’ as possible. We also studied systems that impact community functionality — food systems, transportation and mobility, cultural aspects, job and professional skills, community anchors,” he said. “The planning students approach design a little different and it was great to get that perspective; they helped us to incorporate urban planning best practices. For the community my hope is that at least one of these ideas will take root and lead to jobs.”

Fellow Architecture student Nick Scassero developed the concept of a “community-centered bike shop.”

“The transportation options in the community include about three or four bus lines, regional rail and cars. We didn’t find a lot of people using bikes as a means of transportation,” he said. “My idea is a bike shop as a community destination with a large outdoor area and possibly a café. People could buy parts and buy refurbished bikes. Residents within the neighborhood clearly have an idea of who they are, where they live and what they’d like to see happen in their community going forward. I think part of our goal has been to help them share their community identity outward with their neighbors and the city as a whole.”

Shipping Entrepreneurship

In the coming months the students’ design concepts will be distilled into five readily workable entrepreneurial models within the Germantown Avenue corridor, making their home in large, but maneuverable, repurposed shipping containers, purchased with grant support from StartupPHL and Philadelphia LISC (Local Initiative Support Corporation).

“I think one of the benefits of working with Temple’s students has been rapid iteration. The students are great at abstract thought and developing ideas based on research that leads to conversations and projects that we can pivot toward actuality,” said Angel Rodriguez, Vice President of Community Economic Development for APM. “All of these Temple projects converge and tap into different areas of a long term quality of life plan that APM developed with Philadelphia LISC. The students provide a fresh set of eyes that push everyone forward.”

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Rodriguez said, shopping centers and large anchor stores were used to spur economic development. That model didn’t work along the Germantown Avenue corridor south of 6th Street and Susquehanna Avenue, he said.

“The population density and economic base just doesn’t support it; a different model is needed. Temple’s students have given us a 10-year vision for reducing blight, improving the streetscape, fostering economic development and leadership opportunities to create a safe, vibrant commercial area,” he said. “What we are doing is taking that vision and exploring what we can do right now — rather than a laundry service employing 30 people, what can we do with one to three people. This will provide residents a better understanding of how these larger ideas will work and seed the ground for future growth.”

APM owns the plot of land at the corner of 6th and Susquehanna, which will act as the focal point for this entrepreneurial incubator and home to the shipping container-housed businesses, a project known as the Pop Up Market Place (PUMP).

“The shipping containers are all about creative place making; they are more of a metaphor for taking something that exists and putting it to better use. This project will turn a vacant space into a destination while providing community members an opportunity to create a business of their own and make it work,” Rodriguez said. “A viable business will need to look beyond just the neighborhood. Upcycled clothing, refurbished bikes, harvesting food using aquaponics, they all have the potential to spark interest beyond Germantown Avenue. You can ship a lot of bikes!”

According to Rodriguez, the pre-development funds for PUMP are already in place, “now the support work begins.”

“If I can get one or two of the containers outfitted and in operation by the end of the year, I think that would terrific,” he said. “It’s optimistic, but we just started this project in January and look how far we’ve come in such a short period of time.”

Community Development major Brad Vassallo has been working on the various Temple and APM projects from both directions. He is currently Assistant Coordinator for the Pop Up Market Place program, a position in which he’ll continue after graduation.

“The emphasis from our professors is on real world experience. Your projects are based in reality — real communities, real people, real budgets — and that gives you a much better understanding of what it would be like working in the field,” he said.  “With APM, I’ve been involved in coordinating community engagement strategies and managing communications with our PUMP project partners in addition to developing market research to inform the decision-making process. This is very much a community-driven effort — our steering committee of community members is essential to the process. It’s placing the decision-making power of the community back into planning.”