Earni Young | Commercial redesign adds to city's richness

DESIGN MATTERS.

So much so that architect Tim Kerner, of Terra Studio, scaled the crumbling back wall of a West Philadelphia rowhouse to peer into the shattered second-floor window of a derelict movie theater.

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Kerner wanted to see if any elements of the theater's art deco grandeur remained. What he got for his trouble was a view of a rubbish-filled room without a single architectural feature - no gilded ceiling, grand arch or decorative molding - worth salvaging.

"In a way it was good news," Kerner said pragmatically. "It means we can do anything we want within the box without the limits required to preserve historic features."

The theater in question is the old Imperial Theater on 60th Street near Walnut, in West Philadelphia. The movie house, once the largest in Philadelphia, has fallen into disrepair. Its last performance was as a used-appliance store.

The Partnership Community Development Corp. sees the old theater as the key component in its effort to revitalize the failing 60th Street shopping corridor between Spruce and Market streets.

The Partnership CDC is determined to preserve the façade of the theater and several attached buildings with the distinctive bow windows and ornate Victorian roof lines. It won't be easy, since the narrow buildings are visibly leaning against one another.

Terra Studio volunteered to work with Partnership to create a development plan for the building. The project is one of three unveiled this week as part of the Infill Philadelphia initiative of the Community Design Collaborative.

The others are:

* Conversion of the Angle Bar, on Lancas-

ter Avenue near Spring Garden Street, into a 1930s-style jazz club, sponsored by the People's Emergency Center with

design work by CICADA Architecture/

Planning Inc.

* Creating a coherent theme and high-

profile gateway for the East Passyunk Avenue business corridor between Washington Avenue and Broad Street. The pro bono design work is being done by Brown & Keener Bressi Urban Design and Place Planning in partnership with the East Passyunk Avenue Business Improvement District.

The work of three design teams was presented earlier this week to a panel of judges that included Scott Erdy, of Erdy McHenry Architecture; Jim Hartling, of Urban Partners; Eva Gladstein, director of the Office of Neighborhood Transformation; Alan Greenberger, of MGA Partners; Ahsan Nasratullah, of Teres Holdings; Barry Seymour, of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission; Larry Segal, of Impact Pennsylvania Strategies; Planning Commissioner Janice Woodcock, Planning Commission staff member Alan Urek, and me.

The jurors were charged with critiquing and evaluating the work of the design teams. (While I'm no expert on architecture or urban planning, as a journalist I excel at critiquing.)

Infill Philadelphia is sponsored by the Local Initiatives Support Coalition (LISC) and the Design Collaborative, with funding from the William Penn Foundation and the city of Philadelphia. LISC is a leading expert in commercial-corridor development.

The five-year, three-phase program was created to promote workable solutions for challenging Infill development sites through innovative design.

"Neighborhoods, in order to reach their full potential, need to be developed in the context of integrating work around the commercial corridors, as well as the residential markets, because both of those elements support one another," said local LISC chief Mark Edwards.

"The commercial corridor in many of our neighborhoods is really the thing that contributes to each of those neighborhoods having a rich history and identity of that section for the city. You talk about South Philly and people immediately associate it with the rich history of the Italian culture, and the Italian market is a part of that."

LISC widened its focus from housing to include commercial corridors back in 2002. "In doing so we have been able to develop a more comprehensive approach to the work that we are doing, and we have found this to be successful not only in Philadelphia but in other cities across the country," Edwards said.

LISC also is partnering with the city to support a study by Econsult, a locally based economic-research firm, on how development on one commercial corridor impacts businesses on other business strips around the city.

Edwards strongly believes that high-density, low-wealth markets are good places to do business, but acknowledges that some decaying commercial strips are too far gone to make a comeback as retail meccas.

"So now, we are looking at creative ways to reuse those corridors, be it residential, be it as an opportunity to display public art, or be it open space," Edwards said.

"It is just another way of bringing new ideas and new energy to corridors to try to revitalize them." *