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The Frankford Story IV: Hoping for Revival

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By Mike Newall

Frankford is hurting, but not hopeless.

There is hope for development, but the question is when. Will it begin before Frankford hits bottom and it's time to roll in the bulldozers? The neighborhood cannot survive another decade of crime and decay.

"Will it have to be destroyed before it ever comes back?" asked Debbie Klak, former president of the Historical Society of Frankford.

There is a plan for development, which was released by the City Planning Commission three years ago. It's a based around the El -- Frankford's biggest anchor and its best leveraging point. The plan is based on the theory of Transit Orientated Development. You build life around the transit stops - businesses, entertainment, places to work and play - and it will spread outward.          

Frankford needs some life around its El stops. Church Street Station is located smack in the middle of the most desolate part of the Avenue; there are 15 vacant lots and shuttered buildings one block east of the Margaret-Orthodox Station, and the Frankford Transportation Center is sorely in need of some bigger-name retail stores. There's also the city-block-long vacant lot next to the FTC, which is owned by Septa and would make a great location for some type of amphitheater or park space, since there are few public gathering spots in Frankford.

Sounds great.

But a plan is still just a plan.

And Frankford has seen lots of plans.

"Lots of plans, but never much doing," said Bob Smiley, Editor of the Frankford Gazette.

The economy has stalled neighborhood progress throughout the city, but Frankford has other factors impeding its progress.


Factions at war

It's civic and business organizations are beset by nasty political fighting. Frankford has had had three city council representatives in the last four years - Rick Mariano, Dan Savage, and now Maria Quinones-Sanchez. All three have tried to stuff the boards of the local organizations with their own followers and now it's all a big mess.

"The political fighting is destroying the neighborhood," said Rita Lugrine, a member of the Frankford Community Development Corporation.

The Frankford Civic Association has had some recent success in fighting the zoning of recovery houses. But the civic consists almost entirely of Savage supporters seemingly more focused on winning the former councilman his seat back than taking bold action for Frankford. For her part, councilwoman Quinones-Sanchez has been no great friend to civic association, seemingly putting politics above constituent need.

Worse, the FCDC - which once helped local residents attain mortgages and funded redevelopment projects - is only a few years out of bankruptcy after years of financial mismanagement.

"We're getting back on our feet," said Tracy O'Drain, the FCDC's Manager of Economic Development Programs.

The city has no money to give out right now. It will be up to Frankford's own community leaders - and Quinones-Sanchez - to spearhead residential and commercial development projects, with the hopes of then attaining some city assistance.

"We've been telling the community folks, pick a parcel of land, come up with an idea, shop it around to developers," said Michael Thompson of the City Planning Commission. "Frankford can eventually flourish. It's just a matter of getting the first developer in there along the avenue. Right now, it's not going anywhere."


A failed attempt

There were the beginnings of an attempt to revive the avenue in the late 90's with a sprinkling of artisan shops, restaurants, and galleries around Frankford and Sellers. That effort was funded partly by the FCDC. But the shops never found a steady clientele and most failed.

"I'm the only one left from that time," said Gilbert Pons, owner of Gilbert's Upholstery & Antique Gallery at 4529 Frankford.

The most exciting signs of new life in Frankford - and the only large scale development in the neighborhood - are occurring in East Frankford, where committed developers are converting old factory spaces like Globe Dye Works into creative work spaces.

Globe Development Group -- brothers Matt and Ian Pappajohn and partners Charlie Abdo and Pete Kelly -- are in different stages of redeveloping Globe, the Old Mill on Waln Street and the Seal-Tite Building on Tackawanna. Globe already has 13 tenants with businesses up and running, including two wood shops, a metal smith, the Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory, a photographer, a Jamaican steel drum maker and a guacamole company. Artist Tom Judd's work is currently on display in the main gallery. And the other buildings are getting tenants too, a good number of whom are coming south from Brooklyn.

"They're finding us on Craigslist," sad Abdo. "Hey, it's double the space for half the price."

The beautifully redone spaces are bigger and cheaper than anything that could be had closer to Center City. Many are hoping that these first few developments, which are creating a future out of Frankford's past, can become new anchors and leveraging points for more development.  

"People are comfortable working here," says Abdo, the former owner of North Star Bar, and a successful developer from the early years of Fairmount and Northern Liberties. "I don't know how comfortable they are living here yet, but I think that will change in five to 10 years."


Mike Newall is a Philadelphia reporter who writes about neighborhoods


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