John Theobald and James Wright have both been involved in the efforts to bring new businesses and activity to East Kensington’s Frankford Avenue: John as a board member of New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC) and zoning committee chair of East Kensington Neighbors Association (EKNA) and James as a then-employee of NKCDC.
The main neighborhoods that NKCDC served -- Fishtown, East Kensington, and Olde Richmond -- experienced decades of population and job loss and an increase in vacancy and crime.
NKCDC identified Frankford Avenue as the key to changing this pattern because it was the area’s spine and connected all three neighborhoods together. Frankford Avenue also had existing strengths including dedicated nearby neighbors, a growing number of artists moving in, and steady manufacturing jobs that still existed.
NKCDC conducted a neighborhood planning process in 2003, which resulted in the Frankford Avenue Arts Corridor Plan. The plan recommended capitalizing on those existing strengths to re-brand the neighborhood as a hub for artists and makers. “The bones of the plan linked to the neighborhood’s history of fabricators and industrial businesses,” John said.
Adhering to the plan, NKCDC focused much of its improvement projects on the Avenue, engaging residents and business owners in the process. “The strength was in NKCDC’s focus on the idea and commitment to building it,” John said.
They worked with Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and the Licenses and Inspections to clean up vacant lots; buy property; install flower pots, trees, benches and bus shelters; and work with owners to rent to commercial tenants that fit the Frankford Avenue Arts vision.
NKCDC also provided day-to-day support to business owners, established design guidelines for businesses, and provided funding to install new lights and fix storefronts.
Lastly, NKCDC hosted First Friday events to showcase Avenue businesses with attendance topping 100 people, and other arts businesses opened as a result.
At the same time, NKCDC staff helped neighbors form EKNA, which went on to become the most active neighborhood to participate in the Corridor Plan. Thanks to their participation, the plan truly expresses the interests of EKNA residents. This is part of what makes the plan successful from the neighbor and the business perspective. John recollected how:
The plan gave neighbors their own voice, and the community groups support it because of that.
The results of these efforts, 13 years later? Almost no commercial vacancy, and new commercial spaces being built and occupied! “Now there’s a nice mix of businesses, all different kinds- some creative, some food, and the everyday stuff.” James describes. “It seems like most businesses are owned by local entrepreneurs.”
EKNA helps carry the torch for the Avenue Corridor Plan in multiple ways now, including hosting an annual arts festival and holding firm on requiring property owners on the Avenue to reserve their first floors for businesses. John described how:
We vote for ground-floor retail [on Frankford Avenue] every single time. We’ll give up on parking and height issues to make that happen.
Because Frankford Avenue has some blocks that are mostly homes, EKNA has really stressed requiring putting businesses on the first floors of new development projects. This keeps the commercial corridor as continuous as possible, which encourages customers to walk along Frankford Avenue and stop inside different businesses, instead of just patronizing one business then leaving.
“The plan helps [EKNA] hang its hat on the arts corridor idea and helps us push for it, especially when we’re talking to doubtful developers,” John said. All these efforts together make the Frankford Arts one of the few plans that still has major momentum more than 10 years after being published.
“It started as NKCDC driven, but they can’t do the work without having buy-in from the neighbors,” James said. “Getting neighbors to patronize the businesses is important, and having zoning processes and design guidelines are a big way that the neighborhood groups now uphold the aspects the corridor vision.”
Neighbor-led plans are powerful: they build support for your cause, provide a roadmap, and make fundraising easier.
When drafting a neighborhood plan, start with what makes your neighborhood great already and build off of that. On Frankford Avenue, there were already artists in the neighborhood and some small manufacturing, so that was emphasized in the plan.
Being flexible in a plan helps. The Frankford Avenue Commercial Corridor Plan was more effective because it recommend a mix of businesses and wasn't too restrictive about what fit the vision of an “arts” corridor.
Learn the City's rules for development and zoning, as well as when you have influence.
When negotiating, focus on what is most important. The EKNA zoning committee is willing to sacrifice other desires to ensure Frankford Avenue projects featuring ground-floor commercial.