By Nathan Randall
AICP Special Projects Associate
Planners from around the U.S. gathered in Philadelphia's Sharswood neighborhood on Saturday for an AICP Community Planning Workshop at the 2007 National Planning Conference.
Working groups of planners and neighborhood stakeholders brainstormed on issues of vital interest to the neighborhood — including vacant land, housing, historic preservation, community services, and safety — then incorporated their ideas into drawings and recommendations.
The policy and design recommendations generated from this workshop will be incorporated into a final report that will help the Philadelphia City Planning Commission guide and coordinate future investment and redevelopment in Sharswood.
The day began for participants with a short bus ride to North Philadelphia from Center City Philadelphia to General John F. Reynolds Elementary School for breakfast and welcoming remarks from Sue Schwartz, AICP President, Richard Redding of the Philadelphia Local Host Committee and the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, and the school's principal, Cheryl Hackett. Later in the day, they heard remarks and thanks from Philadelphia City Council Member Darrel Clark.
Workshop organizers presented a short video about the neighborhood and its history as well as interviews with residents. A low-to-moderate income neighborhood, Sharswood has suffered from population decline and blight for many years. Some Philadelphians may not know the neighborhood under the name of Sharswood. It is located immediately north of Girard College and adjacent to Brewerytown. Ridge Avenue runs along its eastern side and Cecil B. Moore Avenue runs near its northern edge. Temple University is located several blocks to the north and east.
Planners in the workshop got a look at neighborhood conditions during a bus tour. Girard College, a private boarding school serving grades 1-12, acts as a barrier to the community on its southern side, a condition further exacerbated by a tall stone wall around the campus perimeter. Participants saw abandoned and blighted properties as well as vacant land, some of which has resulted from Mayor John F. Street's Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI). In some cases, recently vacant land has been improved with tree plantings and fencing.
The neighborhood features a number of educational facilities, including Reynolds School, Girard College, and two public high schools. The historic Athletic Recreation Center is located on the western edge of the neighborhood, and just outside the traditional neighborhood boundary is the M.L. King Recreation Center near Cecil B. Moore & Ridge Avenues. The community has a long sports and recreation history thanks in part to the presence of these facilities.
Residential land uses of varying density and age are concentrated in the interior portions of the neighborhood. Many neighborhood homes are older, two-or three brick rowhouses, with two major exceptions. Blumburg Public Housing, owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority, primarily consists of three high-rise apartment buildings directly across from Reynolds School. Within the past 10 years, Sharswood has seen the redevelopment of some public housing, and several newer redeveloped two-story rowhouses of varying architectural quality are there as well. Project H.O.M.E., a nonprofit social services and development organization, redeveloped some of these properties. Two representatives of the organization joined the tour to discuss these sites.
Commercial land uses, including convenience stores and take-out restaurants, are concentrated in two areas on the edges of Sharswood proper, along Ridge Avenue near Cecil B. Moore Avenue, and along Girard Avenue west of Girard College. Trolley service featuring fully refurbished, historic trolley cars has recently resumed along Girard Avenue.
Working Session One
Participating planners returned to the Reynolds School after the bus tour to meet up with local residents and stakeholders and to get down to work sharing their planning expertise. Facilitator Dr. J. Otis Smith divided the entire workshop group into six smaller working groups for the first of two working sessions. Each working group of planners and local stakeholders was charged with brainstorming existing conditions on one assigned topic and suggesting preliminary ideas for further discussion.
- The Redevelopment of Vacant Land Group explored how to create a stronger identity for Sharswood and how to increase homeownership. On the latter issue they hoped to allow small rental apartments in neighborhood townhouses, thereby making homeownership more affordable.
- The Housing Group discussed existing housing conditions and how existing processes could be improved, such as code enforcement and property condemnation. They stressed better housing quality, and recommended Affordable Housing Trust funds were recommended as one planning tool for the neighborhood.
- The Commercial Revitalization Group suggested that existing nodes of commerce in the neighborhood along Girard and Ridge Avenues should be strengthened. They also emphasized how commercial and residential uses should work together in the neighborhood.
- The Culture and Historic Preservation Group suggested the creation of a walking tour to highlight the sports heritage of the neighborhood, particularly baseball. The establishment of a Sports Hall of Fame and the creation of a music entertainment district were additional ideas from the group. One specific need that emerged from this group was a historic preservation survey since uncertainty exists about which neighborhood properties might be worthy of preservation.
- The Social Issues & Community Services Group stressed the need for better quality facilities in the neighborhood. Existing facilities could be improved, or a new community center could be built that included an indoor pool. They suggested that programs such as adult education and workforce development should be strengthened as well.
- The Crime and Safety Group identified existing crime hot spots and in the neighborhood and what types of crimes were most common in those locations. They stressed that greater homeownership would help prevent crime. At the end of the first round of presentations, two police officers from the Philadelphia Police Department arrived at the workshop and spoke to the larger group on crime issues.
Workshop participants enjoyed a lunch catered by Back Home Café, a business sponsored by Project H.O.M.E. that employs local residents. Students from Reynolds School entertained participants with a thank-you concert featuring xylophones and drums.
Working Session Two
In the second working session of the day, the design element, the same six groups were asked to incorporate their preliminary plans and discussion topics into drawings and final recommendations:
- The Culture and Historic Preservation Group presented a detailed conceptual map of cultural resources in the community. They considered gateways into the community and suggested the creation of an alumni walk around wall forming the perimeter of Girard College.
- The Redevelopment of Vacant Land Group presented three drawings of site-specific redevelopment opportunities. These scenarios were: a linear park created by vacant land and increasing setbacks, a grocery store on three blocks of land that are the most vacant parcels adjacent to Ridge Avenue, and a park between Reynolds School and Vaux High School.
- The Social Issues and Community Services Group recommended the improvement of educational facilities and the establishment of a new community center located between the two schools.
- The Commercial Revitalization Group presented a design plan that strengthened the current commercial nodes and included office space in the neighborhood. They recommended a new shuttle service to better connect the residential and commercial districts in the area.
- The Crime and Safety Group recommended streetscape improvements and the creation of a business improvement district (BID) to help pay for such improvements. They also suggested reaching out to homeowners to make sure they keep up their properties. They also want to see improved communication with the policy so residents know what deterrent programs already exist.
- The Housing Group presented a plan that identified the best housing stock in the community and recommended homeownership programs targeted toward those areas with the greatest vacancy. They suggested the development of new mixed-use/mixed income developments, particularly on or near Ridge Avenue.