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Urbanists Roll Up Their Sleeves in Philadelphia's Francisville Neighborhood | Congress for the New Urbanism

Urbanists Roll Up Their Sleeves in Philadelphia's Francisville Neighborhood

A group of more than 100 CNU XV participants left the Loews Hotel early Wednesday morning and boarded the Broad Avenue subway for Francisville for four related "urban labs' where they worked with residents on planning and redevelopment strategies for this struggling, slowly renewing Philadelphia neighborhood.

In the images at right:
1) New urbanists round Girard Avenue towards the Second Pilgrim Baptist Church, one of the group's headquarters when they weren't out in the streets.

2) Philadelphia area planner Bob Shenk loads a station wagon with lumber and other supplies for a lab that applied Christopher Alexander's methods to the task of creating a temporary piece of civic infrastucture that could serve as a model for a permanent addition to the neighborhood.

3) Sandy Sorlien explains the concept of the rural-to-urban Transect and its role as the backbone of the SmartCode, a form-based zoning code that lab members began calibrating for Francisville by recording existing neighborhood structure. In other slides, Sorlien showed how the existing zoning code was allowing for suburban-style development -- new construction that disrupts lines of row houses with homes and other buildings set back behind row houses. The SmartCode will encourage new construction that enhances the urban character and urban life that is helping attract reinvestment to so many Philadelphia neighborhoods, despite a slow regional economic and population growth.
4. Once one of Philadelphia's most thriving retail corridors, Francisville's Ridge Avenue is now nearly abandoned. In a neighborhood that is more diverse -- white, African-American, Latino -- than all of its surrounding neighborhoods and is attracting new investment overall, Ridge Avenue is so blighted that it deters. "To be honest, It’s been a detriment to redevelopment. When a commercial business district tanks the way Ridge Avenue has, no one wants to live around it," says planner Scott Page of Interface Studios, which has prepared a thoughtful and detailed neighborhood plan for Francisville and participated in Wednesday's lab.

Pictured here, resident Ola Solanke has purchased a whole block along Ridge Avenue of largely crumbling buildings and vacant lots. In one building, just off Ridge, he's created the Arts Garage, a refurbished space for art exhibits, performances, banquets and events. (It served as the home base for the lab involving Christopher Alexander's methods.) Solanke's vision is to tear down more buildings to create a large landscaped space along Ridge Avenue for outdoor performances and gatherings, but he listened to members of the form-based-coding lab who suggested that rehabbing a building on Ridge or building a new storefront could give his business a high-profile new front door while helping to encourage other owners along Ridge Avenue to upgrade their properties as well.

5. In a spot on Ridge Avenue about a block from a club where John Coltrane got his start playing saxophone, an urban labs participant from Philadelphia details more recent chapters in the history of the street, including the purchase of a large parcel by a church group looking to build a suburban-style development.

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