By James Onofrio
When you see a group of smartly-dressed people walking the streets with clipboards and folded-up maps, it's easy to assume they are a team from L&I or the Water Department surveying for violations or want to sign you up for some environmental cause. But in the coming months, the clipboard carriers will probably be surveyors from the Philadelphia City Planning Commission (PCPC), collecting info about the physical state of Tacony.
As part of the city's comprehensive Philadelphia2035 planning process, teams from PCPC have to make sure their maps of the neighborhood are accurate. Sometimes an owner converts the first floor of their house into a business, or the other way around; sometimes a storm takes down newly planted street trees or utility wires. Other city agencies don't always let the Planning Commission know what changes they have made. In order to plan for the future, the planners need to know what's here in the present.
Since Philadelphia is such a big city and the planning commission has limited employees, they have broken the city up into 17 districts. Tacony falls in the "North Delaware District," which stretches from Wissinoming up to the Bucks County border, from the Delaware across Frankford Avenue.
On Thursday, we at Tacony CDC had the opportunity to walk the Torresdale Avenue corridor with a PCPC Planner, John Haak. He had a few tasks: mark which commercial buildings were occupied and which were vacant, note any changes in use (such as a ground floor conversion), and make a general assessment about the physical state of the Avenue. Are the sidewalks in good condition? Are people's lawns kept up? Are building storefronts clean and maintained?
These questions aren't just bureaucratic checkboxes. Over decades of working with commercial corridors, planners and business owners, local business groups and others have found that keeping the appearance of the street up and maintaining a feeling of safety is one of the best ways to get more businesses into the neighborhood. If people feel it is safe and pleasant to walk around, they will be more likely to shop on the street, driving up sales and leading businesses to expand and hire more staff. This is the core mission of Tacony CDC and many other "Main Street" organizations around Philadelphia and other cities.
By updating their maps, the PCPC hopes to better serve the neighborhood by knowing what kinds of businesses are missing from Torresdale Avenue, where the major commercial intersections are, and if there are any areas in need of serious repair. In the past, Tacony has received "Good" or "Fair" ratings from the PCPC, which means the city basically lets the neighborhood continue on its own without too much interference from the government.
Torresdale Avenue in Tacony is classified as a "Neighborhood Center," meaning the shops are mostly targeted towards the residents of the neighborhood. Business development mostly focuses on bringing in any types of businesses that are missing, such as a laundromat or a bakery, and making sure there aren't many vacancies on the corridor.
As the planning process continues, PCPC will hold meetings and outreach events to go beyond the physical conditions into residents' daily experiences in their neighborhood to create a plan that will guide the city towards better serving the communities of Northeast Philadelphia.