Germantown ‘Eco-District' Discussions Continue Between Locals, Philly U Students

Students from Philadelphia University's College of Architecture and the Built Environment gathered in Germantown on Monday night for a community session at which attendees radically re-imagined the area through the Re-Start Germantown "eco-district" project.

The second gathering between the community and fifth-year Architecture and Landscape Architecture students was held at Chelten Avenue's Flying Horse Center.

Though supervising Landscape Architect Professor Kim Douglas encouraged students to make formal presentations to rotating groups of attendees, the evening took a chattier turn as curious locals sought one-on-one conversations with the student planners.

Updated ideas

These conversations are a vital part of the community-integrated plans from six four-student groups focused on different areas and issues of Germantown.

"We got a little more bold with our ideas," said Logan Dry of how his group's Vernon Park-focused project has progressed.

Dry and teammates Justin Lentz, Chris Lousos and Kevin Peters shared plans in October that would have lined the Vernon Park perimeter with shops, galleries and cafes.

After considering that proposed commerce inside the park might compete too much with existing business-corridor efforts, their plan now suggests demolishing a few currently vacant storefronts that stand between the park and street, in an effort to "make Chelten [Avenue] part of the park," Dry said.

Other nearby buildings would be renovated or restored as part of Germantown's "urban fabric," including historically-important structures like the industrial building on the northwest corner of Chelten and Germantown Avenues that dates to the 1950s.

Financial ramifications, community reactions

As residents digested the updated plans, the most common refrain was related to funding. Dry said that his team's plans would require grants from the state and city's Parks and Recreation Department.

"We haven't gotten too much into details of funding," he admitted, though the team was excited by the city's recent investment in Maplewood Mall, an area their plan also addresses.

"You start with the vision, not the funding," said attendee Jean Gajary, a former Germantown resident who recently moved to Mt. Airy who offered equal measures of encouragement and critique.

"It's a neighborhood with real depth," the structural engineer said of Germantown.

She was particularly excited by practical elements of one team's plan that included an elevated walkway/bike path connecting the Northwest neighborhoods to Center City but felt that another team's Germantown High School-focused plan, merging senior-living space with educational-gardening centers, didn't sufficiently connect with many urban-farming efforts already underway in the neighborhood.

"I'm seeing this as a spoke going out to what's already going on," Gajary said of what she's looking for in an actionable urban plan.

Other presentations

Several groups paid attention to food security. That included a plan by Andrew Calderone, Ellen Wright, Joseph Young and Stephanie Smith which would convert crumbling properties and vacant lots near Lena and Armat streets and Church Lane into gardens, greenhouses and youth-focused educational centers.

They estimated 250,000 square feet of vacant or under-utilized space near their focus area could feed 1,600 people fruit and vegetables in a single year, with seasonal garden space available for rent that would funnel back into a supporting "community trust."

Other common themes included eco-friendly water management, vocational training opportunities and a focus on public transit and increased walkability.

Darpan Patel is one of the students proposing an elevated walkway (modeled on New York's High Line) alongside Germantown's existing train line.

"Once you activate that, more people get familiar with the transit system," he said of increasing SEPTA ridership through plans to boost Germantown's arts-and-commerce offerings and make it easier to walk between neighborhood destinations.

Safety concerns

Safety was another popular theme, particularly for Jordan Force, Phillip Luu, Stephanie Geraghty and Ian Schieve, who are focusing on plans for a market center near SEPTA's Germantown Station on East Chelten Avenue.

"It's not very pedestrian-friendly because people don't feel safe," Geraghty said of getting to the heart of the walkability issue.

Luu said that an effort to boost store openings in the area would not solve crime issues, asking "Who wants to invest in shops that are getting broken into?"

Students touted many ways to promote safer streets, including mixed-use retail/residential buildings that would put more eyes on the neighborhood at all hours, better lighting and more job and educational opportunities.

What's next?

"It got a lot easier to talk as [residents] figured out we were trying to learn from them," Schieve said the project's evolution-to-date.

When the semester ends later this month, the Architecture students will finish their involvement in the project, but the Landscape Architect students will participate into 2014.

Douglas said the students will continue their outreach next year, including updates on their blog and the class's Facebook page: "They love this project."

But ultimately, their plans will be in the hands of energetic locals once the next semester ends, including Philly Office Retail's Stan Smith, who brought many questions to Monday night's gathering.

"If they don't embrace this, it doesn't matter what we do," Douglas said of the importance of community engagement.

More open sessions with Philadelphia University's Interdisciplinary Urban Design Studio eco-district project are planned for 2014; specific dates have not yet been scheduled.

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