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Philadelphia - January 2004

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Changing Skyline
Welcome back, Girard Avenue: A street reborn

Philadelphia Inquirer (http://www.philly.com) - January 9, 2004

Just as Philadelphia has traditionally been a city of many neighborhoods, it has also been a city of many Main Streets. From north to south, the city's fine-grained grid is inlaid with wide streets that serve as major transportation arteries, firebreaks and retail hubs.

But here, as elsewhere in automobile-oriented America, Main Streets are an endangered species. For every success story like Main Street in Manayunk or Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill, there are many more thoroughfares such as Girard or Lehigh Avenues where the tinkle of cash registers has steadily grown fainter over the last half century. Punctured by stand-alone convenience stores, fast-food drive-ins and empty lots, these wide streets are struggling to remain not only viable retail corridors, but real urban streets.

While many of the city's neighborhood shopping streets have already declined into cluttered suburban-style highway strips, Girard Avenue should avoid that fate. The east-west boulevard is emerging as the latest contender for a Manayunk-style comeback. Thanks to the population spillover from Center City and the steady migration of residents toward more affordable, more edgy neighborhoods, Girard Avenue might soon claim title as the northern border of Greater Center City.

The transformation couldn't have happened to a more interesting street. In the four miles between I-95 and the Philadelphia Zoo, Girard Avenue spans the globe, drawing in communities of Albanians, Ukrainians, Brazilians, Puerto Ricans, Irish and African Americans. East of the Schuylkill River, the avenue bisects 11 distinct neighborhoods whose names alone could tell the history of Philadelphia, from Fishtown to Brewerytown.

Girard's resurgence has not been entirely by accident. The street got a big boost during the Rendell administration when the city demanded that SEPTA make good on its promise to reinstate the Route 15 trolley line. The track work is now complete. By June, SEPTA hopes to have 15 refurbished, Streamline Moderne streetcars trundling along the center right-of-way, sporting the original green, cream and maroon colors of the former Philadelphia Transportation Co.

It seems almost everyone loves a trolley. The $56 million transit project piqued the interest of city agencies, which began to focus seriously on Girard Avenue's future. Behind the scruffy exterior, they discovered a treasure-in-the-rough.

Amazingly, given the amount of life-sapping, blank-walled government architecture imposed on Girard Avenue during the last 20 years, the street still supports such venerable retailers as Rutberg Furs, Young's Candies, and a ladies' hat shop in Brewerytown, all still housed in their '50s-era storefronts.

It also boasts attractions such as the Roman Catholic shrine of St. John Neumann and the zoo, distinctive 19th-century architecture, and great subway and El connections to Center City. In recent years, an eclectic batch of restaurants, bars and clubs have enriched the mix. The New Acropolis Diner, at Frankford Avenue, is surely among the last places in America where not only do all the patrons smoke, but so do all the servers.

A local rescue plan

After the trolley work started, the Philadelphia Empowerment Zone, a city agency, invited the nonprofit Local Initiatives Support Corp. to come up with a rescue plan for Girard. LISC, which lobbies nationally for Main Streets, organized civic groups from the 11 neighborhoods into the Girard Avenue Coalition. That coalition is raising money to repair broken sidewalks, install street lights, and launch a marketing campaign.

Investment in infrastructure - or, more accurately, basic upkeep - is a time-honored way to make a fading neighborhood seem more attractive to business and residents. The improvements don't guarantee that people will come, but they generally make them feel better about being there.

The challenge will be to unify the long avenue. Even in its heyday, when workers piled onto the trolleys for the breweries and shipyards, Girard Avenue was never one continuous retail corridor. Few pedestrians are likely to walk the four miles from Zeka's Albanian Grocery at Front Street to the zoo at 34th Street.

The weakest stretch of the avenue is the area around Broad Street, despite the presence of the subway hub. Blame several poorly planned and government-subsidized projects, such as the half-built Heritage Plaza strip mall. A community center being completed at 12th Street also deadens that stretch of Girard by turning a blank wall to the avenue.

SEPTA's barriers

It's unfortunate that some of SEPTA's track work also makes Girard Avenue feel less pedestrian-friendly. Metal car barriers, which are meant to protect people while they wait on the trolley platforms, look as if they belong on an interstate highway rather than a city street.

Despite these design weaknesses, Girard Avenue is still managing to attract private developers, especially in the parts adjacent to the booming Northern Liberties and Fairmount neighborhoods. In Brewerytown, just a short bike ride from Kelly Drive and Fairmount Park, builder John Westrum is clearing a large tract for more than 200 townhouses. Developer Bart Blatstein has been promising a similar project on the site of the former Schmidt's plant, at Second Street.

Given that drug chains and fast-food restaurants are what passes for economic development on many other Philadelphia shopping streets, Girard Avenue is more than holding its own. Like the pilgrims visiting St. John Neumann's shrine, the street can count its blessings.

Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.



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