Project to Make Philly's Vacant Spaces ‘Lots of Power'

Philadelphia has more than 40,000 blighted, vacant lots across the city. Deciding how to develop and address the negative ripple effects they have on neighborhoods is complex.

But it's something Megan Barrett says Maryland-based wind power company Clean Currents sought to answer -- at least in the Kensington neighborhood -- when it opened its regional office here in January.

"In our conversations with people in the community, this issue of vacant lots and vacant properties kept coming up over and over again," Barrett said. "So, we decided that we wanted to do something that would be both impactful and something that would best support positive community change, and that's how we decided to develop this Lots of Power program."

Lots of Power, an initiative developed through partnerships with AIGA Philadelphia, the Delaware Valley Green Building Council, and various schools and community organizations in Kensington, pairs professional designers and architects (mentors) with high school youth (mentees). As teams, the pairs will take a creative approach to making sustainable transformations to vacant lots in the Kensington community.

"We wanted it to be a very educational opportunity for teens to get involved in their communities and we wanted them to hopefully come up with some creative solutions that maybe haven't been discovered yet," Barrett said.

Participating teams will submit proposals to Clean Currents next month and through a process of internal and public voting, two winners will be chosen to receive a $4,500 grant to implement their proposals later this fall.

Michael Sebright, founder of sustainable design firm Evolve Build, and Lammey & Giorgio architect Kelly Ball got the chance to mentor recent Frankford High School graduate Salina Santiago on one of the teams.

Both Sebright and Ball says the project was a great opportunity for them to help educate a future architecture and design student while also helping the Kensington.

"It gave me the opportunity to bring my experience to the table and then provide it to somebody who's a young, aspiring architect," Sebright said. "So being a part of that conversation, I can give her a window into something that is a really unique, and a really different way of looking at architecture. and at the end of the day its really something good to do; being able to give back to the community."

"I enjoy teaching and working with young people, but in my professional career, I don't always get the opportunity to do that. So I thought it was a great opportunity to introduce architecture to somebody who might be interested in it and who otherwise might not get the chance to kind of see the inside of what that's like," Ball said.

Santiago, 18, who hopes to pursue a career in architecture, says she soaked up a lot of knowledge working with the two veteran designers.

"They really helped me get a view of how architecture can work from the inside out," Santiago said. 

While the team is keeping its proposed project plans tightly under wraps so as not to spoil the competition, Sebright says he and Ball relied heavily on its student mentee Santiago, a lifelong resident of Kensington, to provide insight as to what type of project would be most beneficial to the community.

"As an outsider, I really let Salina tell me what was going on. I didn't assume that I knew anything about what would be best for the site. All I did was ask questions of her and let her explore the boundaries of what was happening in her community," Sebright said.

"Around where I'm from, everyone is always outside. So, I thought having our project there would be so much better than having just an empty lot with trash in it; and to have something there that people can use would be so much better for the community," Santiago said.

According to Barrett, six teams in total will be submitting their final project proposals in September. Winners will be announced on and

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