At first impression, Germantown’s Maplewood Mall is an ideal respite from the bustling, congested area surrounding Germantown and Chelten Avenues. On the narrow, winding street, leafy trees shade a hodgepodge of Victorian, colonial, and red brick row homes housing small businesses and residences alike. Al Ciment, owner of Maplewood Nutrition and Dietary Food Shop, describes the Mall as an “oasis.” Yet Maplewood Mall, home to bustling commercial activity in the 1960s, has suffered over the last few decades due to an onslaught of building vacancies and infrastructural disrepair. Peeling paint and neglected landscaping are eyesores; loose bricks, potholes, and unevenly paved sidewalks are safety hazards. Many business owners and residents believe a makeover for Maplewood Mall is long overdue.
“We’re at a point of suspended animation,” says Jim Bear, owner of G-town Radio, a Maplewood Mall-based online radio station and organizer of the “Re-imagine Maplewood Mall” block party this past weekend. “I’m confident in saying that the vacancy rate is much higher than what people would want it to be.”
But that might be about to change. Earlier this month, Councilwoman Cindy Bass, along with State Representative Stephen Kinsey and the City Commerce Department, announced a $2.2 million initiative that would seek to revitalize Maplewood Mall. The Commerce Department was granted these funds from the Capital Budget and allocated them for improvements to the Mall.
Nancy Carroll, a volunteer at Crossroads Women’s Center, located at 33 West Maplewood Mall, has lived in Germantown for 20 years. She hopes that the revitalization project will spur practical improvements to the Mall’s infrastructure. “Everything needs a facelift at some point or another,” she reasons. Carroll, who uses a wheelchair, cites uneven, loose bricks and potholes as hindrances to being able to smoothly get around Maplewood Mall.
While beautification efforts and infrastructural improvements are priorities, the “re-imagining” of Maplewood Mall’s identity and purpose in the community are means of encouraging more businesses to stake their claim there.
At the entrance of Maplewood Mall on Saturday, Matt Wysong, Northwest Community Planner for the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, stood in front of a display explaining the process of the project: who was in charge, what the organizational roles were, a potential timeline for the project’s completion. Block party visitors and community members could approach various poster boards asking for opinions on which direction they’d like to see the Mall head. From types of businesses, to landscaping themes, to parking zones and pedestrian walkways, visitors were encouraged to mark their preferences.
Wysong says that this community input is not only valued but necessary for any reconstruction, development, or revitalization plans to be finalized. “The only way to move forward is if the community is behind it,” Wysong says. “We want everyone to buy into it.”
Opened by Ciment’s parents in 1963, Maplewood Nutrition and Dietary Food Shop is the oldest health food store in Philadelphia, and Ciment has seen the arc of the Mall’s identity change over the decades. He remembers a heyday of thriving businesses including restaurants, bars, and bookstores. At the time, Maplewood Avenue was a narrow, one-way street, passing between Germantown Avenue and Greene Street with an even mix of residential and business entities.
In 1974, the City, under Mayor Frank Rizzo, enacted a plan for a formal urban mall on Maplewood–the first of its kind in Philadelphia. But what was initially heralded as an innovative step in urban planning and neighborhood revitalization ended up being a detriment to its future.
“Business owners were not thrilled with the prospect, but it happened anyway,” remembers Bear. “It definitely didn’t do what was intended–it did not turn into a flourishing place.”
Bear says that the major construction projects interrupted business for many stores on Maplewood Mall, and they were eventually forced to close. And once the thru-traffic option was gone, so too were the cars and customers. Even today, the Mall is tucked away from view, a dog leg spur from the more prominent Armat Street, which has parking lots on either end of the Mall.
“They took away a viable street and put in a landlocked mall that needs constant repair from the city, and it’s not getting it,” says Ciment.
By the 1980s, Maplewood Mall was no longer the thriving, vibrant commercial center Maplewood Avenue once was. And today, Germantown United CDC president Andy Trackman estimates one-third of the properties on Maplewood Mall are vacant.
Maplewood Mall, though, is not the city’s only area of its kind to be faced with these infrastructural and functionality problems. Wysong refers to the Chestnut Street Transitway of 1976, a project that barred traffic, with the exception of SEPTA buses, from several blocks of Chestnut Street in Center City in an effort to make it a more pedestrian-friendly shopping district. However, this turned out to more of a problem than a solution to improving shoppers’ experience on Chestnut Street. In a 1986 Philadelphia Inquirer article, famed city planner Edmund Bacon said that the Transitway had “failed miserably,” and that the aesthetics of the street were “just abysmal.”
Plans for Maplewood Mall face similar predicaments to those of the Chestnut Street Transitway. “One of the things that both the Chestnut Street Transitway and Maplewood Mall shared was that they tried to be more than one thing,” Wysong says. “It’s not a city street nor a pedestrian mall—it’s stuck in the middle…We’d try to go 100% in one direction in terms of its function.”
Factors like traffic flow and walkability are among the considerations urban planners and community members need to take if they want to develop the identity of the Mall into one that will not only serve Germantown residents, but become a destination for all Philadelphians.
“With the Chestnut Street Transitway, it seemed like people never bought into the concept—it’s almost like they wanted it to fail,” Wysong says. “We want to try to develop something that everyone buys into. When you get that buy in, people don’t want to see it fail, so they try harder to make it work.”
While the $2.2 million investment is a “wonderful thing,” according to G-town Radio’s Bear, he also says “it’s not going to remake the place…It could do some important upgrades, but it’s not going to transform and fix the problems with it.”
Maplewood Mall is certainly in need of a lift, but so too are other sections of Germantown. Of this, Wysong explains, the Maplewood Mall project will serve as a testing ground for other future plans in the neighborhood.
“It’s a small chunk to bite off,” he says. “We can use the experience for bigger, better things, like Chelten Avenue. Right now, it’s too soon to take on something of that size. This is a baby step.”