The Daily Pennsylvanian: City program used to improve 40th, Market area

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

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Storefront Improvement Program incentivizes businesses to make facade improvements

The building that houses Eye Encounters, at 4002 Chestnut St., is one of two in the area around 40th and Market streets that has undergone work reimbursed through through the Storefront Improvement Program. The community is using the program, which incentivizes investment in businesses, as a tool to revitalize the area. While Penn is just beginning construction on the new college house on the east end of campus, there are already community efforts in place to improve the area west of campus, around 40th and Market streets, that make use of a city program to bolster the looks of businesses.

University City District, the nonprofit corporation that promotes development in the neighborhood is working to encourage area businesses to make use of Philadelphia’s Storefront Improvement Project, which subsidizes the renovation of storefront facades.

Businesses that apply for reimbursement submit an improvement plan, which a commission made up of representatives from several city departments — including the Planning Department, the Department of Commerce and the Historical Commission — judges and approves.

“We’re really looking to increase pedestrian activity in these neighborhood commercial corridors. From a design perspective, that means as much ground floor transparency as possible,” Beige Berryman, an urban designer who is on the design commission, said. Common improvements include new windows, signs, paint and lighting, she said.

The University, which in many cases has leveraged the land it owns to spur business development, is limited in what it can do in the area around 40th and Market streets. The Hub, at 40th and Chestnut streets, is Penn’s only holding in the immediate vicinity.

Nevertheless, University officials and community leaders have expressed hope that there will be some renewed investment in the blocks surrounding 40th and Market.

“It’s a really important gateway to University City that serves a lot of really different populations,” Prema Gupta said. Gupta is the planning and economic development director of UCD. “A lot of different things need to happen to improve it.”

“It’s really about improving the pedestrian realm and creating a more hospitable pedestrian environment,” she added.

The strategy has been successful in other areas of University City. Along Baltimore Avenue, Philadelphia reimbursed six businesses through the program, which allowed for $43,000 in public investment to leverage $53,000 in private investment, Jonathan Snyder, the Department of Commerce employee who is the top administrator in the program, said.

Last year, Aksum, a restaurant at 46th Street and Baltimore Avenue, won the “Extreme Makeover Award” in the Citywide Storefront Challenge, hosted by the Commerce Department and the Community Design Collaborative, a nonprofit that helps administer the program. Guacamole, on 46th Street and Woodland Avenue, received an honorable mention for the same award.

“The goal is to help improve how areas look, to improve the aesthetics, make them more attractive and to help the businesses in those areas stay open and provide goods and services to the local community,” Snyder said. The data show the program is effective in achieving those goals: of the businesses that participated in the program and responded to a 2011 Department of Commerce survey on the results, 85 percent reported an increase in customer visits.

The role of community partners like UCD is crucial in the success of the program, Snyder said.

“I really rely on our community partners to help businesses by both making them aware of the program and, for the businesses that are interested, helping them apply,” Snyder said. “UCD has been very good about reaching out to businesses and getting them involved.”

Around 40th and Market, as with other commercial corridors throughout the city, the philosophy is that better looking businesses will lead to better economic conditions.

“Our goal is to make neighborhood commercial corridors more attractive,” Berryman said. “Good design is good business.”