Maybe we can’t undo 1954. But we may be able to put a more pedestrian-friendly face on it. Northeast Philly residents tried their hand at doing that at a visioning workshop held as part of the Philadelphia City Planning Comission’s second public meeting on the Central Northeast District Plan on Sept. 25 at the Northeast Regional Library.
The library seemed most appropriate, given its location in the middle of the Cottman Avenue business district, the focus of the visioning exercise. Along with the commercial hubs of Fox Chase Village and Five Points, Cottman Avenue—from Castor Avenue to Roosevelt Boulevard—was identified by residents and planners as a main area of focus for the district plan currently being drafted. Attendees heard a summmary of progress on the district plan so far and got to express their preferences on priorities for Fox Chase and Five Points, but the main event was the exercise in reshaping the Northeast’s “downtown.”
Attendees broke into groups of five or six consisting of residents and Planning Commission staff members for the exercise, which resembled a board game: The groups received “game pieces” representing new structures, bus shelters, streetscape and intersection improvements, parks, and even a few new streets and pedestrian paths that might be cut through the middle of long blocks. The charge: figure out where the pieces should go to make for a better Cottman Avenue experience. Planning Commission staff set a few ground rules—assume some buildings remain in place, but others might be altered or removed—then let the participants do their thing.
Some common elements emerged in the three groups’ redesigns:
- Cottman Avenue should get streetscape improvements to make it more attractive.
- Horrocks Street should be extended through the Cottman-Bustleton shopping center—the complex that includes Sears—between Sears and Pathmark.
- There should be improved pedestrian connections between the civic buildings on the south side of Cottman and the stores on the north side as well as between Sears and the Roosevelt Mall. Many also opted to add new pedestrian pathways through the mall itself.
- Intersections along Cottman should be improved to make pedestrian crossing and traffic flow easier.
- Some of the acres of parking around the district’s retail stores could be done away with. For example, one participant noted that the parking lot in front of the Pathmark supermarket at Bleigh and Large streets is never more than half full. But there was no consensus on what lots could be redeveloped with other uses.
The groups diverged on where—and whether—to add new development in the area. While the Planning Commission staff included new retail stores and mixed-use buildings as game pieces, not all the groups agreed that the area needed more retail. A police officer who patrols the area noted that the former Lit Brothers/Clover/JCPenney store at Castor and Cottman remains vacant and said filling it should be a top priority: “Everything we do has to focus on that.” Another participant noted that there has been high turnover among Roosevelt Mall tenants, with about half the merchants changed in the last ten years. Most of the participants suggested improvements that made the mall more appealing to pedestrians, such as shortcut pathways and adding a park in its center, to address its perceived challenges. Where they did recommend new development, most of it was modest, consisting mainly of mixed-use residential-retail buildings: only one group chose to add large-scale new retail to the area.
But what just about all these changes had in common is that they were focused on the streets of the area and the pedestrian realm, suggesting that many in the Northeast would like to see a more walkable commercial hub for the area.
There are other issues the commission seeks to address in planning the Central Northeast’s future, and some of those were brought up at the meeting. One was sprucing up Five Points’ “crowded, slumpy, worn-out” appearance while preserving its Mid-Century Modern commercial buildings; another concerned knitting together Fox Chase Village’s commercial district and its transportation facilities. Attendees were asked to vote on priorities for both districts. The most popular choice in Fox Chase was development of a hiking and biking trail along the Newtown Branch railroad right-of-way, a project Montgomery County is pursuing. In Five Points, attendees indicated intersection improvements to make pedestrian crossing and bus transfers easier should take priority.
The commission is on track to complete the Central Northeast District Plan by spring.