Economic Development

On Washington Ave, Competing Visions Clash

Once a vital manufacturing hub and now a crossroads of several fast-changing neighborhoods, Washington Avnue is ground zero for conversations about an evolving Philly. Credit: Chaucee Stillman

This is the first article in a short series about the changing identity of the Washington Avenue corridor in South Philadelphia.

Passing along Washington Avenue is like navigating an obstacle course through Philadelphia’s post-industrial identity crisis. Abandoned factories rise from the curb, lasting testimonies to an earlier era when steel, coal, paper and other goods were manufactured on the street. Trucks, laden with tile and hardwood, back into the median and block traffic. Strip malls bustling with Vietnamese and Cambodian businesses point to Philadelphia’s ever-expanding melting pot. The scent of fish announces the touristy and locally celebrated Italian Market shopping area.

Walk down the avenue, and be prepared to sidestep glass. If biking, good luck trying to make out the faded lane delineations or deal with sudden gaps in bike lanes. If driving, you will have to swerve around cars illegally parked perpendicular to the curb or in the center of the street. If loading sheets of granite onto a tractor-trailer, you will likely curse the pedestrians, cyclists and drivers invading your manufacturing hub.

Washington Avenue is a loud, chaotic example of the growing pains of a city struggling to redefine itself on limited means and with limited direction. A central thoroughfare in South Philadelphia, Washington crosscuts diverse communities with competing interests and conflicting dreams. Asian immigrants envision a bustling “Little Saigon” commercial center, industry advocates hope to build on the history of manufacturing and brand an “industrial design corridor,” while residents of gentrifying neighborhoods surrounding the avenue crave cafes and grocery stores.

The competing interests have made for plenty of dispute — one battle over the development of a strip mall has been in the courts for 10 years — and city planners have largely kept out of the fray. Until now.

Jennifer Barr is the city planner who will lead efforts to develop a plan for the South District, which includes Washington Avenue. She expects the bustling corridor to feature prominently in that plan, expected to play out over the next five years, but says that the faster-growing neighborhoods will be focused on first.

“It seems to be doing pretty well all by itself,” she said.

Compared to other corridors in less affluent parts of the city, Washington Avenue is indeed doing pretty well, especially from the vantage of City Hall a mile away. But for many in the neighborhood, the conflicting dreams and partial plans have made for partial progress. They say the corridor needs attention, and needs it badly.

“There are people jogging now around fork lifts on the side walk,” said Michael Mazzola, head of a family-owned marble and granite distributor based on the street.

Washington Avenue’s identity crisis mirrors that of contracted cities across the country. In Gowanus, Brooklyn, a historically industrial neighborhood is tussling with the same questions: How can the area build on its industrial past, design for a mixed-use future and mitigate the environmental devastation of the canal that runs through the neighborhood? An active advocacy design group, Gowanus by Design, has been trying to bring together myriad community stakeholders. But the biggest hindrance GbD defined for Gowanus could just as easily describe Washington Avenue, with its numerous disparate visions, dreams and plans: “The fact is, the area suffers because there is no master plan.”

Workshop of the World

Once covered in train tracks, Washington Avenue’s wide berth for decades marked the southern border of the city. Factories and coal yards grew up around the train tracks, ranging from the Curtis Publishing Company printing press, which spewed reams of Ladies Home Journals and Saturday Evening Posts, to the locally renowned merchant John Wanamaker’s factory and warehouse on the avenue. Steel, textile and brewing companies rotated through the large lots, part of a central industrial hub that earned Philadelphia the nickname “workshop of the world.”

By the mid-20th century that had all changed. A deadly trifecta — disruptions in the manufacturing industry, the transition from rail to truck-based shipping and the growth of the suburbs — made the horizontal industrial buildings on Washington all but obsolete. One by one, they trickled out of use.

With a mix of retail, manufacturing and residential uses, traffic patterns tend to get messy on Washington Avenue. Credit: Frank Turner

As factories moved out, however, Italian immigrants moved in. By the 1970s, the avenue had been reborn as a hub for construction businesses. On the wall next to the entryway of the Donatucci Custom Kitchen showroom is a mural commemorating the proud family’s history. Sepia-toned railroad tracks fade into a bright blue rendering of the sparkling contemporary showroom.

“Our parents started here because it was dirt cheap, it was a piece of real estate that nobody wanted,” recalled Tom Donatucci, whose father started the kitchen business in 1962 when the avenue was a “no man’s land… it used to be the Wild West.”

That Wild West got even wilder, but in a different way, in the 1990s when the train tracks were paved over. The wide and newly smooth corridor quickly became a popular thoroughfare.

“Cars that used to go five miles per hour, because if they went any faster they would ruin their car, [started going] 40 and 50 miles per hour,” recalled Mazzola, who said that the avenue had become a “highway.”

Soon enough, that well-trafficked highway began attracting other groups of immigrants. Asian business owners put in bustling, neon-lit strip malls and expansive sit-down restaurants along the Eastern half of the corridor in the 1990s. Grocery stores, doctor’s offices and nail supply shops catered to the growing Vietnamese and Cambodian communities moving into row homes on residential streets around the avenue, pushing up property values. Median home sale price in Bella Vista, which straddles Washington Avenue, was $55,000 in 2000. In 2012, it had risen to $250,000 Meanwhile, the Asian population in South Philadelphia East increased 277 percent, from 2,470 to 8,950 between 1990 and 2010.

That investment has sparked others to think differently about the once-forlorn corridor. East of Broad Street, Washington Avenue became welcoming to pedestrians, with shoppers and diners attracted by the multiethnic restaurants and artisanal shops in the historic Italian market. Bright Vietnamese Pho restaurants cluster one next to the other, taquerias blare jubilant dance music, and pungent odors waft from Italian cheese, sausage and spice shops. The Curtis Printing Press at 11th and Washington was converted into 78 luxury lofts in 2005. Nearly 100 percent occupied, the lofts range from $300,000 to $1 million.

But while the few blocks east of Broad on Washington grow increasingly residential, the blocks west have kept a decidedly more industrial feel.

Colliding Visions

Today the western half of the avenue is a haphazard jumble of industrial warehouses, auto body repair shops and discount stores. There is some discussion around rebranding it as an “Industrial Design Row,” but some property owners look at the rapid gentrification of neighborhoods surrounding the avenue and hope to join the wave. So far, it’s been an awkward transition.

Planning authorities call the avenue a “complicated place” and point to massive workload and an understaffed planning commission to justify the lack of coherent vision for the future. In official plans Washington is split at Broad street East from West, and also split down the middle North to South. The northwestern section of Washington Avenue is the edge of the Center City district plan, while all of the eastern half of the avenue and the southwestern section will be in the South District plan. The arbitrary delineation, based on census tracts, highlights Washington Avenue’s role as the southern border of Center City.

“As we’re looking at Washington Avenue we’re not completely blind to what’s south of Washington, though the plan wont be specifically about the south side,” said Laura Stina, the planning commissioner leading the Center City district plan, which includes the northwestern section of Washington Avenue. “What we recommend on the north side won’t be detrimental to the south side.”

Washington Avenue has long been been a hub for immigrant-owned businesses. Credit: Allyn Gaestel

The district plans are part of the city’s master plan,Philadelphia2035 . The first phase, adopted in 2011, provided a broad citywide vision, while the second breaks the city into 18 districts, each to develop a more specific plan. Washington Avenue is located right on the border of the South and Central plans, so the northwestern part is already in the planning process, while the eastern end will follow when the South District plan is created.

Stina acknowledged that bringing together the many divergent ideas about the future of the avenue is an ongoing process. Plus, Washington Avenue is the very southern edge of a plan that includes downtown, what the Planning commission website refers to as “the symbolic heart of Philadelphia.”

“We’re always on everybody’s fringe, so it’s not the core of their zone,” said Donatucci of the kitchen warehouse. “We’re falling through the cracks.”

Meanwhile, other, smaller plans have begun to take shape on the avenue. The Planning Commission earned a $75,000 Transportation and Community Development Initiative grant to study parking and bike lane issues with Washington Avenue Streetscape and Design, with the goal of developing a plan to make Washington Avenue “a Complete Street that works.” But the scopes for that plan are still incomplete. The Planning Commission’s Barr called the plan “kind of an anomaly, because we are getting to it before we do the district plan.” She said so far the plans deal with “discreet issues. We aren’t trying to do a full blow out plan for Washington Avenue.”

The Delaware River Waterfront Corporation built a pop-up park at Pier 53, jutting off the farthest eastern point of Washington Avenue. It is designed to reclaim wetlands and make the natural waterfront accessible to the public. DRWC has listed Washington Avenue as a potential “connector street” in its master plan, so sometime in the next 20-25 years they hope to improve the streetscape to ease access to the waterfront.

The Philadelphia Water Department has listed Washington as a potential spot for a storm flood relief project, but the plan, which would include greening the avenue, is still in the evaluation stage. If and when the connector and storm water plans come to fruition they may partner, but that’s a distant possibility.

So between numerous plans touching sections of the avenue, Washington bumbles forward in fits and starts. Neighbors swerve around each other and dream of a more productive and picturesque use for the avenue that once housed the city’s proud economic generator.

Tags: philadelphia, economic development, gentrification, south philly, waterfronts, industry, philadelphia2035, delaware river waterfront corporation, washington avenue