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Changing City: South Street

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By Morgan Zalot and Tom Ferrick Jr.

Where do all the hippies meet? Not on South Street. Not anymore.  The famous commercial strip is going through tough times, suffering from the bad mojo associated with the term "flash mobs" and an economic downturn that has left the street dotted with empty storefronts.

South Street still has vitality and still draws throngs of tourists, teenagers and the party hardy crowds that fills bars such as Fat Tuesday, Mako's and Paddy Whacks.

What's missing from this picture? Residents from the surrounding neighborhoods, who avoid certain blocks like the plague and hipsters and others in their 20s and 30s who have migrated to new playgrounds, such as Old City, East Passyunk Ave. and the Piazza at Schmidts on North Second Street..

South Street's reign as the hippest street in town is over and South Streeters are grappling with what comes next. A final descent from funky to tacky? A haven for low-end clothing and jewelry stores?  Gridlocked on Saturday night, but empty during the day?

Merchants who have been on the street for decades are philosophical about the changes. They have seen South Street go through a number of stages over the decades - from an empty zone in the 60's, to the epicenter of arts and counter-culture in the 70's and 80's, to a high-rent district attracting big chains in the late 80's and into the 90's (called the Shopping Mall Era by some) to the current times, which just ache mostly because of the recession.

Julia Zagar has seen it all.  She opened her Eyes Gallery in 1968 and still operates it today at 402 South. It is a South Street classic, a mix of jewelry, art and clothing with a South American accent.

 "If you go on five-year cycles, there were things that happened during each one that were good," Zagar said. "This has been the most difficult."

According to Dave Hammond, executive director of the South Street Headhouse District, the street got hit by a double whammy in the last two years.

First, after years of waiting, the entire streetscape got a face lift - with new sidewalks and curb cuts, trees planted, pedestrian lights installed, and South Street itself repaved. The multi-million dollar project got underway in early 2008 and (after the inevitable delays) was completed in October of this year.

South Street Rainy Day.jpgDuring those months, though, sidewalks were replaced by boardwalks, stores were sometimes inaccessible, and crowds avoided what amounted to a 10-block-long construction site. Merchants took a lot of hits. All suffered; some did not survive.

Then the recession arrived. Foot traffic returned but no one, it seemed, was spending money.

"We had sidewalks torn up and traffic disrupted for months and then October comes along and the bottom falls out on the economy," said Hammond. "Our timing was exquisite, to say the least."

The South Street district extends from Front Street to 11th Street and Lombard to Bainbridge Street, but its heart is the 10-block stretch of South Street that runs from Front to 11th.

It has 234 commercial and business establishments, including 33 clothing stores, 26 restaurants, 14 jewelry stores,12 nail and hair salons, 10 bars, 8 take-out restaurants and 4 ice cream shops. But, the largest single category is labeled "vacant."

As of this fall, the 10-block stretch had 38 vacant storefronts - equal to a 16 percent vacancy rate.

Among the list of the recently departed are Blockbuster (201 South), the Pontiac Grill (304), Total Sport (326); Pearl Arts & Crafts (417), the Gap and Gap Kids (500), McDonald's (600) Tower Records (610), Foot Locker (604), Radio Shack (632) and Zipperhead (407) - though that store has simply migrated around the corner to Fourth Street. More recently, the Walgren's Drug Store that had moved into 610 after Tower also closed.

It is not all bad news.  The western end of the corridor, anchored by supermarkets WholeFoods and Superfresh, who share the corner of 10th and South, is bustling. This area has seen an infusion of news stores and restaurants, including upscale Supper (928); Percy Street BBQ (908), a Starbucks (900) and the German restaurant Brauhaus Schmitz (718).

In fact, South Street is today divided into two districts: 11th to 8th is the neighborhood section, where locals shop and eat. East of 8th to Front Street draws the out-of-towners, the teens and party-hardy crowds.

"It is kind of like a boardwalk in a way," said Hammond. 

Mike Supermodel (it's his last name, really) used the same words to describe South Street, though in a disparaging way.

Supermodel is a South Street exile, his store Jinxed occupied 620 South Fourth Street for five years, until he closed it last year and moved to the Piazza at Schmidts.

"We were what I would call a prototype of a South Street store - tee-shirts, books,  toys," he said. "Everything we sold was an art-based limited edition."

(Fourth Street between Lombard and Bainbridge is commercial spur off South Street. Once anchored by the now-defunct TLA video, it has eight vacant storefronts -- for a 20 percent vacancy rate.)

Jinxed was, well, jinxed by the street work and the economy. "It seemed to happen right around the (2008) election," Supermodel said. "People...just...stopped...coming."

Supermodel racked up personal debt to keep the store going, but eventually had to flee north to the Piazza, where he is much happier.

"I don't want to disparage South Street," he said. "South Street is what it is, but I would rather be here at the beginning of something that at the tail end of something and just hang on."

His take on South Street was echoed by other merchants - privately. For publicSouth Street Store.jpg consumption, they tend to ooze optimism and treat the words "flash mobs" the way Lord Voldemort is handled in the Harry Potter books. The Name We Dare Not Speak.

The way Mike Supermodel sees it, South Streets problems began in the Shopping Mall Era, when big chains set up business on the street.  "They sucked all the cool out of it over a decade and when they were gone, you had a shell."

They also had the effect of inflating rents all along the block - rents that remained high even as the big names departed and the economy soured.

Supermodel's  take on current day South Street goes this way:

"You can still go up there, but the clientele isn't that touristy.  The best analogy is that it is like the Gallery now -- sneaker stores, jewelry stores, pizza shops and bars. What was the prototype - usually it had the adjective 'funky' attached -- just isn't there anymore.  The properties are held by a small group of people who have no incentive to lower the rates. Since it always maintains a level of business, it never has the chance to bottom out. It's like the boardwalk. You walk on the boardwalk, but it's in the city. On the boardwalk at the shore, how many interesting places do you find? As opposed to how many pizza shops do you find?"

Actually, the landlords do have the incentive to lower rents - due to so many vacancies - and Hammond reports they are coming down, an observation echoed by Stephen Giannascoli of Triad Realty, who represents Michael Axelrod a Long Island resident who owns 54 properties in the district, and Howard Lander, another large landlord who declined to say how many properties he owned.

"I'm having people look at some spaces who wouldn't have two years ago," said Lander.

Last year, Penn's Department of City and Regional Planning studied South Street and emerged with a report that offered suggestions on ways to revive the street.  One of the Penn team's observations was that the district was a regional destination that was underutilized by its neighbors. The South Street district generates about $545 million in sales a year, but only 13 percent of that comes from nearby locals - low by city averages.

Hammond said the district is using the Penn plan "Reclaiming the Edge" as a guide and would like to attract more entertainment and retail venues that would draw locals, though he cautions: "We are not like a shopping mall where you can determine what the mix will be."

Meanwhile, the district had a celebration this fall to mark the 40th year of the South Street renaissance. Looking back, it seems, is more fun than looking forward.

 

Tomorrow: Change and progress on Passyunk Avenue

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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