Local Designer Wants to Beautify Huge, Vacant Lot in South Philly

By Queen Muse
|  Thursday, Sep 19, 2013  |  Updated 8:47 AM EDT
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Bringing Beauty to Giant Philly Eyesore

Elisabeth Garson

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It’s a giant eyesore.

That is the general consensus around the present state of the 4.5-acre vacant lot located on the corner of South Broad Street and Washington Avenue.

Longtime South Philly resident and creative director Elisabeth Garson says she has a viable plan to fix up the former Cirque du Soleil space; that is if the property owners will allow her to.

"It’s such an eyesore for this community and it is a personal thing for me, because I live here in South Philly. I’ve been here for many, many years. I know this area, I know who lives here, I know the traffic, and I understand what that vacant lot is doing to this area. It is literally like a cutoff for the artistic movement that’s happening here," Garson said.

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The "movement" Garson speaks of is marked by the various shops and venues lined along the Avenue of the Arts, including the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts, the Kimmel Center, and Freedom Theater. According to its web site, the Avenue of the Arts is a public-private partnership that supports the physical appeal and economic growth of the Avenue, which in turn attracts visitors, tourists, and new development.

But nothing about the current state of the lot at Broad and Washington says new or development.

The space, which has been unused since the former temporary occupant, Cirque du Soleil, moved its show to the Camden waterfront last year is now a large plot of uneven concrete, covered with patches of weeds.

In an attempt to reinvigorate the space, Garson has drawn up a proposal to create a seven month-long arts and recreation fair called the Philadelphia Arts Market. The outdoor event would invite residents and tourists to participate in recreation activities that would include dozens of craft makers, farmers market and flea market vendors, food trucks, and a stage for musical performances.

Garson says she’s received favorable responses from several City officials and community groups that have reviewed her plan.

Gary Steuer, the Chief Cultural Officer for the City’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, called Garson's proposal a fantastic idea, but said the City has little influence over any projects being implemented on the lot.

"This particular project seems to be a fantastic idea and is certainly something we'd be extremely supportive of, but we're not in control of that site," Steuer said.

Rita Caputo is a member of the advisory council for Capitolo Playground at 9th and Federal Streets. Caputo, who has worked with Garson on similar projects, thinks the Arts Market would be a good way to use the space.

“We think it’d be great to have anything there. We’ve seen Elisabeth’s proposal and we thinks it’s great,” Caputo said.

The property falls within the boundaries of the 2nd District, which is represented by Councilman Kenyatta Johnson. After a preliminary review of the proposal, Johnson’s chief of staff, Christopher Sample, says Garson’s plan could be a good fit for the space, but would require a lot of organizing to have it implemented.

“While it sounds like a great idea, this is not a small project. It’s gonna cost some money, it’s gonna take some time to put together, it’s a lot of lifting involved in this. And it’s private property, so we’d have to get the owner to agree,” Sample said.

According to Office of Property Assessment data, the vacant lot located at 1001-29 S. Broad Street was purchased by NH Philadelphia Properties in 2008 and was later acquired by New York-based realty company Hudson Realty Capital, LLC.

Since 2008, there have been numerous reports and rumors of plans submitted for development on the property from everyone from Carl Dranoff to Will Smith.

Dranoff is the founder of Dranoff Properties, which recently built a luxury apartment development at 777 South Broad Street. He says he’s been in talks with Hudson about developing the property, but he would not say how fruitful those discussions have been.

“We don’t have any immediate plans. We have been in on-and-off discussions with the owners of the property, but I don’t have anything definitive to report,” Dranoff said.

Sample says Philly’s own Will Smith once expressed interest in the property, but that he later withdrew his bid when the owners allegedly upped the price of the land.

“It’s just really a shame how they tried to gouge him. Once they found out it was him they wanted to charge something outrageous; millions more,” Sample said.

“He could’ve built a sound studio there, which would’ve been fabulous. It would’ve just put us on the map with regards to economic development on that avenue.”

Garson says she’s repeatedly heard from others that the owners are not so easy to work with.

“Every city person I’ve talked to has thought it was a great idea, but ongoing, every single one of them has said we’ve had nothing but problems with the land owners; that they’re unwilling and very difficult to work with,” Garson said.

An email from Councilman Mark Squilla regarding Garson’s proposal indicates Squilla finds it unlikely that the owners will agree to Garson’s temporary use of the space.

In an email to Garson, Squilla wrote: “I love your idea, but I tried dealing with Hudson on several occasions and none of them were successful.”

Hudson Realty declined to comment about potential development on the land, including Garson’s Arts Market proposal. Garson says she submitted her proposal to Hudson last week and the owners vowed to respond to her soon.

While she awaits a response from the owners, Garson says she’s remaining open to the idea that her project might wind up being implemented in a different space.

“I’m okay with having it somewhere else, but I’ll be perfectly honest with you, for something like this, the location is super important. It’s not like any old space will do, because I just don’t think it would work,” Garson said.

“Part of this idea is to get sponsors and to have part of it generate income, so I want to continue fighting for this space. In the meantime, Mark Squilla is interested and his district is so great, so one of my thoughts is to explore and see if I can find anything on Delaware Avenue. If I could find a lot by the river, that could also work, but this location is just so perfect.”

Steuer is also supportive of finding an alternative space in case things don't work out with Hudson.

"This particular idea, while it would work beautifully on that site, is not something that would work only on that site. My hope was that if the idea is one that is financially feasible, we could work with her to hopefully identify an alternate site if this particular owner is just unwilling to allow this site to be used," Steuer said.

Johnson’s director of legislation, Steve Cobb, says the councilman has scheduled to meet with Garson next week to review her proposal.

“The councilman is generally supportive of anything that would be a creative move for economic development in the district,” Cobb said.

In the meantime, Garson has begun a campaign to rally citizen support for her proposal. She’ll be presenting her Arts Market plan to members of the South Broad Street Neighborhood Association (SBSNA) at its annual meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 17 at Methodist Hospital.

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