South Street. For decades, it was Philadelphia’s hippest street. A mecca for entertainment, live music, restaurants, and cutting-edge fashions -- in the stores and on the streets. Young people dressed in punk, grunge, or hip-hop styles. Some wore their hair in shades of green, purple, or pink.
For some business owners, there’s a new vibrancy on the corridor after the 2008 recession led to several store closings. The vitality is evident with the arrival of new businesses over the last eight months: MilkBoy, a restaurant and bar; Joynture, a co-working space; and Kicks USA, a sneaker store, all in the 400 block.
“It’s almost going through another renaissance,” said Ken Silver, owner of Jim’s Steaks at 400 South. “Right now, I don’t think we’ve ever been hotter."
John Foy, owner of Bridget Foy’s Restaurant & Bar at 200 South, sees things a little differently. From where he stands, the last couple of years have been troubling for the businesses on the south side of that block.
“It’s just blighted,” Foy said as he looked across the street. “It’s the empty stores, the general neglect. It’s just killed pedestrian traffic on the block.”
Today, South Street is a tale of two streets. It’s divided. While businesses owners from Third Street west to Broad Street are bolstered by the renaissance, those to the east describe their section as ugly and neglected.
People are flocking to places like Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, a public artwork museum of mosaic tiles, mirrors, and found objects created by longtime South Street artist Isaiah Zagar, at 10th Street.
The buzz is that a major developer plans to buy more than a dozen buildings between Third and Fifth Streets. A Canadian restaurant is expected soon, and a small boutique hotel is under construction nearby at Fifth and Bainbridge Street.
But the optimism of Silver and others belies the realities for merchants and neighbors between Front Street and Third, where anyone walking by will see one empty store after another.
Abbotts Square, between Second Street and Third, has only two active stores, a Rita’s Water Ice and Chef’s Table, a catering company. The rest of the windows are dirty and dusty: some are covered in brown paper, torn and sagging in places, while others are painted in snowy winter holiday scenes left over from two seasons ago.
It’s not only business owners who are upset.
"Mostly it’s sad, it’s frustrating, and it’s demoralizing,” said Emily Morano, a homeowner who lives on American Street near South.
She recently wrote to Michael Harris, executive director of the South Street Headhouse District, a business improvement organization, to complain. She noted that Second and South is the corner where the city’s tour buses drop off tourists.
“It is really, truly an embarrassment, an eyesore, and a public safety issue, and I think we've put up with it for long enough,” she wrote.
Developer Eric Blumenfeld, whose Stobba Associates LP owns Abbotts Square's ground-floor commercial spaces, said they have been vacant while he has been trying to attract a grocery to Second and South since 2013.
In 2014, he put up signs saying a Garden of Eden grocery was “coming soon.”
Those signs were still up this week, even though Blumenfeld announced almost a year ago a new deal with Fresh Formats to open a Bfresh store. Fresh Formats is a division of Ahold Delhaize, the Dutch company that owns Giant and Food Lion stores.
Christopher Brand, a spokesman for the company, confirmed it has signed a lease for the long-empty corner. In an email, he said it just opened a Bfresh in Massachusetts and has been working to make it a success.
“The Fresh Formats team is working on plans for Abbotts Square,” he wrote. However, he said, he couldn’t say when the store would open.
City Council member Mark Squilla, who represents the district, said he was aware of the many complaints about the vacant stores. “It’s been a long time coming,” Squilla said. “But we are very optimistic that it’s going to happen.”
Blumenfeld has also been busy building 47 apartments in former garage space just above the vacant stores and has large banners touting them as "luxury apartments."
While about half of the new apartments are rented, he said, he's facing a lawsuit from the Abbotts Square Condominium Association. The suit alleges Stobba eliminated condo owners' access to a service corridor and violated other regulations during construction.
In the meantime, Harris, of the Headhouse District, said business owners have a right to be upset. Downey’s, a longtime restaurant at Front, has also been empty. But Harris said the district is working with a new owner to attract a new tenant.
“We bring more than a million people down to South Street a year,” Harris said. “It’s a top tourist destination in the city. For many people, it’s their first and maybe only impression of Philadelphia for tourists who get off the tour bus. It should look like a vibrant clean corridor.”
In June, the business district will begin a $2 million renovation of Headhouse Plaza, on Second between Lombard Street and South, expanding the space around the fountain and adding more green space for people to gather.
“We’re fixing up the public space,” Harris said. “And we’ve offered and stood ready to help [Blumenfeld] in any way, not only fill his vacancies but make his building look better.”