East Chestnut's revival could get huge boost from big project
The way John Columbo saw it, East Chestnut Street in Center City was a ghetto. From 8th to 13th, the once-beautiful and bustling street brimmed with empty storefronts with graffitied windows and bottom-feeder businesses like dollar stores and check-cashing joints. Drug dealers jockeyed with street hustlers for sidewalk space.
It was the perfect place, he and his business partner Mike Lewis decided six years ago, for their gourmet cupcake bakery, Philly Cupcake. "You look at what everybody else is doing and do the opposite - place luxury right in the center of the ghetto," Columbo said of their business philosophy.
While a few other brave merchants followed their lead, the changes weren't always positive and a rebirth remained elusive, Columbo said. A sex shop moved in a few doors away and filled its storefront windows with space-age vibrators and near-naked mannequins to tempt passers-by. Farther east, some cheered the closure of the old Funk-o-Mart electronics store, only to see another dollar store move in.
"They want this to be Woolworth's, and we're trying to be more Chanel," Columbo said of the battle to revitalize Chestnut Street.
But some say one project underway may be just the catalyst needed to transform East Chestnut into the residential and shopping mecca that its western half has become.
Brickstone Realty Corp. in June bought the old Oppenheim, Collins & Co. department store and the old House of Beauty superstore next door between 11th and 12th streets. Then earlier this month, they finalized their purchase of a third adjacent building, a former dollar store.
Developer John Collins, Brickstone's president, said workers will renovate the six-story Oppenheim, Collins & Co. building, putting 80 residential apartments on the top four floors and retail on the bottom two floors and underground. The neighboring, shorter buildings will be demolished and rebuilt for retail.
Altogether, it'll bring 70,000 square feet of retail space to the block. Collins said his company hasn't begun negotiations with prospective tenants yet, but said he aims to bring a specialty grocer and other higher-end retailers and keep Oppenheim, Collins & Co. as a "large-format" retailer.
Such plans thrill many residents and others who frequent the street, who say it has been Center City's embarrassment for too long.
"If you really take the time to look up, the architecture is fabulous. But down here [street level], it sucks. It's very depressing," said Peg Flynn, 56, who surveyed the street during a recent cigarette break from her medical job.
Flynn has worked on East Chestnut for more than 35 years and remembers when shoppers had their pick of upscale stores.
But a slow slide started in 1976, when officials closed the street to traffic between 8th and 18th streets to open the Chestnut Street Transitway. Backers envisioned the stretch would become a European-style pedestrian promenade, in which shoppers could stroll, dine and linger without the noise, danger and exhaust of hundreds of cars and trucks zipping by.
But the city kept the transitway open to SEPTA buses and emergency vehicles, ensuring it would never become the peaceful retreat city planner Edmund Bacon first pitched in the early 1960s. Businesses fled, and their customers followed.
The city reopened Chestnut to traffic in the early 1990s, but by then, the damage had been done.
"We've seen steady improvement and revitalization across all areas of Center City, but East Chestnut and East Market Street remain areas that are still seriously lagging behind, with vacant buildings, vacant sites and out-of-date retail," said Paul R. Levy, president and CEO of the Center City District.
Revival will likely happen faster on Market Street, Levy said, due to several large-scale projects planned, like renovations to the Gallery mall.
"On East Chestnut Street, we are likely to see more incremental change, as smaller buildings that have been vacant upstairs are reactivated, following the very successful path that completely changed South 13th Street from a blighted and vacant area into a thriving, live-work and vibrant restaurant zone," Levy said.
Many credit developer Tony Goldman, who died last year, with leading the rebirth of the blocks east of Broad Street that used to be plagued by prostitution, drugs and other crimes. Goldman rehabbed about 25 buildings over a dozen years in the area now known as Midtown Village.
Specifically, 13th Street has become a hot spot created largely by Valerie Safran and Marcie Turney, business and life partners who opened six restaurants and boutiques there in the past decade.
Levy thinks Brickstone's plan could be similarly successful in transforming East Chestnut Street.
"The improvement to Milkboy at 1100 Chestnut was an important first step, and what Brickstone now will be doing is very big by improving retail quality and occupancy, and activating the upper floors with residents. This is exactly the formula that transformed South 13th Street, and it will clearly spur other developers to look and attract new retailers and residents to the street," Levy said.
Brickstone's plan needs a zoning variance for 12 parking spaces required for the residential development; Collins will make that request before the city zoning board on Oct. 30. If approved, he expects the project could be done as early as June 2015.
Brickstone has plenty of experience at daunting renovations. Past projects include the old Lit Brothers building, Mellon Independence Center, the Wanamaker Building, 1234 Market St., Courtyard by Marriott and Hawks' Landing at St. Joseph's University.
It's all music to Columbo's ears.
"People were afraid to go east of Broad, but that's changing now," said Columbo, who just signed another five-year lease for Philly Cupcake.