Not all new businesses get the same welcome when opening on an urban commercial strip. When a snazzy retail operation like an Apple store comes along, local business leaders might pat themselves on the back for “making it.” But when a dollar store opens, some see a sign that the area has become unattractive to upscale development or wealthier residents.
A motley mix of automotive shops, hair and nail salons, insurance and law offices, and vacant storefronts, Frankford Avenue in the Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood of Mayfair leans more toward the latter. Sidewalks are generally barren and don’t necessarily invite a stroll. On a recent visit, I got the sense that most residents drive to a single business to take care of a weekly errand, and then drive away without window shopping.
The Mayfair Civic Association and City Councilman Bobby Henon are hoping to encourage commercial transformation by banning 15 different types of businesses they feel are disruptive to that development by using a Neighborhood Commercial Area (NCA) overlay. According to Philadelphia’s zoning code (which was overhauled in 2012), NCA overlays are “intended to preserve the integrity of neighborhood commercial areas and to promote and help guide appropriate commercial development.”
The Mayfair zoning overlay would ban everything from barbershops and hair and nail salons to daycare centers, laundromats, and dollar stores.
The list reflects a typical range of businesses that you might find in lower-income communities. It also represents 34 percent of the existing businesses in Mayfair according to Philadelphia’s planning commission, which declined to give the neighborhood alteration its nod of approval. If City Council approves the overlay, existing businesses would be grandfathered in, but they’d be prevented from expanding — and it would be the most restrictive overlay in the city.
“I think if you take [away those stores], there’s nothing left. There’s really nothing besides that on the Avenue,” Angel Medina, proprietor of Hair Wizards, told me. Medina opened the barbershop on the corner of Frankford and Unruh avenues in June 2013. “Lots of people come to Frankford Avenue because those are the amenities offered here. You have to know the neighborhood in order to get something done in the neighborhood. A lot of people come down and go to the Metro PCS store to pay their bill and then stop to the barber shop to get their hair cut.”
Note Medina’s use of the term amenities — a word so often used to distinguish an attractive neighborhood in promotional literature from developers. But, as I pointed out in “Fighting for Affordability and Community Character in Queens,” what constitutes an amenity is more subjective than urban planners and economic developers sometimes acknowledge.
Low- and moderate-income people might consider affordable childcare, laundromats, beauty shops, and used clothes and furniture as draws to a neighborhood. It’s possible that those things can co-exist next to more upscale shops in a walkable, attractive neighborhood if a corridor’s other qualities, like signage, setbacks and infrastructure, are improved.
Hair Wizards’ chairs were full when I visited. “We’ve got people who used to live in the neighborhood, who’ve come back to the neighborhood and now they’ve got something to do here,” says Medina, adding that people from all over Northeast Philadelphia flock to his barbershop for unique razor styles and hot shaves.
In fact, some of the other new, welcomed businesses along Frankford Avenue are types that might either be banned or considered bad for the neighborhood if you just looked at their use, like a new consignment shop, a tattoo parlor and a re-opened beer distributor. Sisters Consignment sells high-end designer clothes from the likes of Michael Kors and Dolce & Gabbana, but would not have been able to open under the proposed zoning overlay.
Northeast Philadelphia has seen a lot of neighborhood change over the last two decades. Historically an Irish neighborhood, the white population in Mayfair and neighboring Oxford Circle declined 46 percent from 1990 to 2000, according to Pew. Meanwhile, the Hispanic population grew 874 percent and the Asian population grew 596 percent as more immigrants arrived over the last 20 years.
It’s hard not to see this overlay — and banning measures like it across the country — as reactionary measures that do not take a holistic look at community values as they’ve changed over time.
“I think some of this — what’s happening in the Lower Northeast in particular — [is that] neighborhoods are changing. Change is hard to accept,” said Alan Greenberger, deputy mayor for economic development, at the meeting where the planning commission voted its disapproval of the overlay last week.
“Something like a Business Improvement District could get to that idea so much better than prohibitions,” suggested commissioner Marty Gregorski. “[If] we prohibit 34 percent of uses, I think we end up with vacancies that we didn’t see before. And really it comes down to signage, maintenance, upkeep and general look of the area.”
As the Mayfair Community Development Corporation moves forward with a proposed BID, Henon intends to see the bill have a hearing in City Council on November 6th.
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Alexis Stephens was Next City’s 2014-2015 equitable cities fellow. She’s written about housing, pop culture, global music subcultures, and more for publications like Shelterforce, Rolling Stone, SPIN, and MTV Iggy. She has a B.A. in urban studies from Barnard College and an M.S. in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania.