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City Blocks: Making It Happen on Passyunk

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By Tom Ferrick Jr.

Vince Fumo may have served as the catalyst for the changes along East Passyunk, but the  avenue was ready made for revival. It may have been frayed around the edges, but it had good bones. The surrounding neighborhoods were healthy. The avenue itself was dense, with 156 commercial establishments on the five-block stretch, and pedestrian friendly. It had retained a corps of  businesses that  catered to a traditional clientele, selling everything from religious items to Catholic school uniforms to cheese baskets, jewelry and women's clothing, pizza and southern Italian cooking.

As Renee Gilinger, director of the East Passyunk Business Development District, put it: "The avenue would not be what it is without the people who sell the Catholic items and the dresses.  You had that mixture, but what you needed was someone to be bold and say 'we are going to change our mix of clientele.' You needed folks with vision and cash."

Fumo and his associates had plenty of both.

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He did not do it alone.  DiCicco said they had a number of conversations with Tony Goldman, the developer who remade the city's 13th Street corridor.  Originally, they entertained the idea of Goldman becoming the developer, but could not agree on money, DiCicco said. 

But, they absorbed Goldman's advice: the importance of having living quarters above stores to keep the street populated at all hours; the presence of restaurants to bring in an evening crowd that could also shop before and after dinner; the need to "seize" one block at a time and redo it - especially the corners.

"Goldman told us that if you stabilize the four corners it leapfrogs over to the next block," DiCicco said.

It also helped that the real estate was relatively inexpensive.  Citizens Alliance paid a total of  $1.2 million for the 14 properties it bought along the avenue - an average of $83,000 each.  No one is sure how much renovations cost - they were extensive and costly.  But, today the properties are valued at $15.9 million.

And they made a point of putting apartments above each store.

"The key to the avenue is the apartments," said Anthony Criniti, a Passyunk Avenue realtor who owns 30 apartments along the block. "It draws younger people who do business on the avenue. If you are 20-something years old you want to live on the avenue."

(Contrast this to the Italian Market, which can be dark as the tomb at night because years ago upstairs living quarters were converted to storage.)

Since Citizens Alliance had a big bank account, it paid cash for the properties and the renovations and it was able to splurge on amenities - such as the Singing Fountain at Passyunk and Tasker that serves as a focal point for the block.  (The fountain was the idea of Fumo protégé Councilman Jim Kenney, who had admired how fountains in Europe often served as de facto neighborhood centers.)

Two additional factors created buzz.  After word got around that Fumo was buying up properties on the avenue, other real estate investors started to do the same - on the theory that if Fumo was behind it the project was likely to succeed.

Also, new cafes and restaurants that opened on the block drew the age 21-35 crowd who had started moving into the neighborhood.  An example several cited was Cantina Los Caballitos, an always crowded Mexican restaurant and bar at 1651 E. Passyunk. "It is," said one merchant, "the clubhouse of the New People."

Finally, because Fumo was flush with cash, he did not have to adopt Goldman's one-block-at-a-time strategy.  Citizens Alliance bought and renovated stores on four Passyunk blocks.

Paul Levy, head of the Center City District and an appointee of the court to serve as interim conservator of Citizens Alliance,  said  that Fumo may have hit upon a formula that could be used again in revitalizing other neighborhoods.

What Fumo did was buy up a critical mass of buildings, renovate them and then pick the tenants to improve the mix of businesses.  Because he had the money ($27 million in the Citizen Alliance bank account), he was able to pay cash for the buildings and their renovations.

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As Levy said in his June report to the judge overseeing Citizens Alliance, the problem with a lot of business development districts - ones that provide additional services through assessing property owners an additional fee - is that the assessments rarely yield enough to sustain a full range of services for the district. They need other sources of income or end up being cash-starved and ineffective.

But, as landlord, Citizens Alliance received rents from tenants and, by Levy's estimate cleared $200,000 a year on $730,000 in revenue from the properties.

This is a model, Levy said in an interview, that might be replicated, with a local community development corporation acquiring a "strategic inventory" of properties on a commercial corridor, renovating them and holding ownership, using revenues from rents to pay for further development and services in the district.

In the right place and under the right circumstances, it could be an elegant solution to deterioration and decay.

 

For a witty take by a South Philly native on the New People who have put down roots in East Passyunk read Desiree Raucci's essay The Hipster Commandments in VoxPop.

 

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