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Changing Skyline: Germantown bets its future on revitalized Vernon Park

Inga Saffron, Inquirer Architecture Critic

Updated: Friday, November 6, 2015, 3:01 AM

Ruth Seeley, left, with friends of Vernon Park, and Emaleigh Doley, with Germantown United CDC, talk about the new additions to the park.

Behind every neighborhood success story in Philadelphia, there seems to be a rejuvenated park. In West Philadelphia, it was Clark Park. In East Passyunk, it was the Singing Fountain plaza. Northern Liberties can point to its homegrown Liberty Lands.

A worker cleans the sidewalk on Germantown Avenue outside Vernon Park. The city invested $1.2 million in cleaning up the seedy park, but the nearby shopping district has yet to develop.
Ruth Seeley (left), head of the Friends of Vernon Park, with community organizer Emaleigh Doley of Germantown United. "The whole park feels polished," Seeley says. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Phoenix Eaton, 5, swings on the new playground equipment at Vernon Park with a playmate. INGA SAFFRON / Staff
Photo Gallery: Changing Skyline: Germantown bets its future on revitalized Vernon Park

It sounds inconceivable today, but for years cities virtually ignored these little nooks of outdoor space, allowing them to decline into seedy, dangerous, no-go places. But the humble local park is now having its moment, thanks in large measure to a generation that craves public socializing. Every urban neighborhood and small town in the region wants a congenial spot where its residents can sip coffee, watch their kids run around, and escape the isolating bubble of their computer screens.

Part of the attraction is that cities have discovered their parks can be a powerful tool to rescue struggling commercial areas. Germantown, which has Philadelphia's second-largest shopping district after Center City, is about to test the idea with the restoration of Vernon Park, an eight-acre oasis steps from the main commercial node at Germantown and Chelten Avenues.

Once the estate of John Wister, a 19th-century congressman and scion of the famous Philadelphia family, Vernon Park has always had elegant bones. But as Germantown's shopping district floundered, and the city cut back on maintenance, it became a place for loiterers to drink the day away. Germantown residents stopped using its winding paths as a shortcut to the shops. Few ventured in after dark.

Civic leaders hope the renovation can get those residents back into the park and, by extension, turn them into shoppers again. Pushed by the Friends of Vernon Park and Councilwoman Cindy Bass, the city agreed to invest $1.2 million to outfit the space with new amenities, such as a brightly colored children's playground and adult fitness stations. There are new benches, lights, and freshly laid paths, and the park's venerable sculptures have been given complete face-lifts.

"The whole park feels polished," said Ruth Seeley, who heads the Friends group, as she showed off the improvements.

On the bright fall morning I visited, Vernon Park was performing according to plan. A half-dozen preschoolers dashed around the playground, their parents and caregivers taking in the sunshine. A couple strolled the paths hand-in-hand while a medical assistant walked briskly to do an errand. If there were loiterers on the sleek new benches, they were on their best behavior - evidence that a critical mass of good users can neutralize the bad ones.

The renovation comes at a crucial time for Germantown, which has yet to see the burst of renovation and new housing that other Philadelphia neighborhoods have experienced, despite its grand houses and convenient transit to Center City.

Chelten Avenue, in particular, has been leaching businesses, said Emaleigh Doley, a community organizer who works for the nonprofit development corporation Germantown United as a "corridor manager." She's concentrating on helping existing businesses get grants to improve their storefronts and interiors.

But an interview with one of the parents at the playground was telling. "We don't really shop here," Eric Eaton said as he watched his son, Phoenix. "Our family is vegan and there is nothing for us."

That wasn't the first time Doley had heard such sentiments. She believes the park will eventually bring people to the commercial area, but for the moment, "what's lacking is a diversity of businesses." There are too many dollar stores, pawnshops, and check-cashing places.

Given how many people come and go from the transit stops, there are surprisingly few cafes to eat in or linger over coffee. Food and parks go hand-in-hand in revitalizing commercial streets, said Andrew Frishkoff, who runs Philadelphia's office of LISC, a nonprofit that provides expertise to groups like Germantown United.

There are small signs of change, though. A diner-style restaurant called Happy Bread Cafe just opened at the Germantown and Chelten intersection. After seeing the improvements in Vernon Park, developer Ken Weinstein said he decided to renovate a charming corner building up the block, at the corner of West Rittenhouse. It's perfect for an independent cafe, he noted.

Weinstein also is installing a job-training center in another building. But his plans to acquire the decrepit, city-owned Germantown YWCA, which overlooks Vernon Park, was thwarted by local politics. He had intended to convert it into senior housing.

As other neighborhoods have found, it's not enough to create good public spaces; there has to be a built-in constituency of 24/7 users to populate them. Having more residents living close to Vernon Park and the business district would help provide those customers.

The commercial district is still trying to overcome a legacy of bad management by the failed Germantown Settlement organization, which squandered $100 million in public funds before declaring bankruptcy in 2010. It wasted years on bad initiatives that put too much emphasis on installing social service agencies in the retail spaces.

Meanwhile, little was done to counter the incursion of nuisance businesses. Right next to Vernon Park is a deli that sells beer by the bottle and that attracts many of the loiterers who make their way to the park. The deli, Lee's Steaks & Hoagies (not related to the Lee's Hoagie House chain), was the scene of a shooting last year.

The area in front of the deli got so bad that preschool teachers from Acclaim Academy decided to stop taking their charges to play in Vernon Park. "Our teachers had to face catcalls in front of the children," said owner Joe Martin. "We're hoping that will change soon."

In October, neighbors banded together for the first time to contest the deli's liquor license. The state Liquor Control Board is considering whether to revoke the license or impose special conditions.

It's sad to think the unruly crowd could cancel out the city's investment in Vernon Park - and compromise Germantown's potential in the bargain.

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Inga Saffron, Inquirer Architecture Critic

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