Newly formed Northwest Commercial Corridors group aims to improve neighborhoods by connecting community groups
February 7, 2013By Matthew Grady for NewsWorks
"For years, Chestnut Hill sat out on its own and now it's part of a Northwest identity."
- Kate O'Neill, deputy director for the Chestnut Hill Business Association
A coalition of Northwest Philadelphia community development corporations are joining together to coordinate efforts to improve their neighborhoods.
Called Northwest Commercial Corridors, this newly-formed initiative will bring together CDCs and business improvement districts from East Falls, Manayunk, and Roxborough, along with neighboring groups in West Mt. Airy, Chestnut Hill and West Oak Lane to work together to pool resources and network, address shared interests and issues, and lobby the city more effectively for financial assistance.
Gina Snyder, executive director of the East Falls Development Corporation, is the organizer of the group. She explained that the idea first came to her about a year ago while working on recurring issues of parks, parking and streetscapes, among others.
With the city delegating more responsibility to these community groups, Snyder observed that each organization had worked out separate agreements with regard to the city. The NWCC seeks to ease some of the redundancies.
Overall, said John Ungar, chief operating officer for the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corporation, the goal of the NWCC "is to improve the businesses' bottom line and the neighborhood as a whole."
Pooling resources to reduce costs, connect to the park and raise funds
Snyder related that numerous conversations are taking place to determine the best course of action for the neighborhoods. Among the broader goals for the fledgling organization are joint marketing and promotion efforts for the Northwest.
Noting that each of the participating groups share borders with suburban counties, Snyder observed that the Northwest draws upon a regional customer base.
By drawing upon these regional assets, NWCC seeks to attract consumers and new residents to Philadelphia and generate assets and revenue both for the city and for respective CDCs.
Hollie Malamud Price, executive director of the Mt. Airy Business Improvement District, observed that the centerpiece of Northwest Philadelphia is the Wissahickon Valley, and that the participating members of NWCC all serve as gateways to the park.
"One of our goals is to educate people about the wealth of recreational opportunities [in the Wissahickon] as well as businesses," said Price.
More specific topics are reducing costs for issues such as CDC-run parking lots and insurance, as well as lobbying for CDC allocations from the city's general fund.
While Snyder explained that the NWCC is very much in preliminary conversations, she said that enthusiasm for the project is spreading among peer organizations.
"People are excited," she said, "and are happy to be at the table."
Collaboration among neighbors
Among those at the table are the Manayunk Development Corporation and the Roxborough Development Corporation, who have met regularly with Snyder over the past three years to discuss issues of common interest.
For Jane Lipton, executive director of MDC, NWCC was a natural progression.
Recognizing that they saw each other as competitors in the past, Lipton said that working as a group would be better for all participants.
"The day we decided to call ourselves something was the day we realized we could accomplish something," she said.
Bernard Guet, executive director of the RDC, said that NWCC is an opportunity to restore financial allocations to CDCs that have been cut at both state and local levels. Noting that funding remains available for CDCs that service lower-income neighborhoods, Guet said that without funding, operating a CDC in a mixed-income community will become increasingly difficult and possibly unsustainable.
Taking the lead in drafting a letter seeking support for this initiative was Mt. Airy USA, the eponymous CDC located on Germantown Ave.
Elizabeth Moselle, director of commercial corridor revitalization for Mt. Airy USA, said the letter was sent to city officials with the intent of reaching them prior to budget hearings for the upcoming fiscal year.
With CDC block grants being based on income level, Moselle said that mixed-income neighborhoods like Mt. Airy are ineligible.
"Income requirements are one of the biggest challenges we face," she said, a statement echoed by leaders of almost all of the constituent organizations.
At the same time, referencing the visibility and impact of demolitions at historic Roxborough homes, Guet said that he sees the group as creating community awareness and maintaining the characters of historic neighborhoods.
Not represented in NWCC is the Germantown neighborhood, a fact that Snyder attributed to the transitional status of CDCs in that neighborhood.
Support from City Hall
Snyder noted that assistance from city officials will be an essential part of the NWCC, members reached out to their respective councilpersons for their support.
Referencing the historical appeal of neighborhoods included in NWCC, Fourth District Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr. said in a statement that "the historical character and contours of these areas are what attracts visitors and tourism, which are great for our neighborhoods and the city as a whole."
Noting that practical issues and capital improvements are approached jointly by the city, Jones observed that, "Northwest Commercial Corridors is a great way of approaching community improvement and development through connectivity, collaboration and regionalization."
Joe Corrigan, director of communications for Eighth District Councilwoman Cindy Bass, said that Bass' office has spoken with NWCC members in her district and is supportive of the organization, specifically praising members for being proactive.
"One of our campaign platforms was to get groups from the district to work with outside groups to determine best practices and work on projects within the district," said Corrigan.
NWCC is encouraged by the support they've received from elected representatives.
"They've both been very accessible," said Snyder, "and give us a lot of cause for optimism."
A symbolic shift
That optimism was expressed by each of the groups within the NWCC.
"Everyone is very collegial," offered Snyder. "They see the benefit in us working together."
Kate O'Neill, deputy director for the Chestnut Hill Business Association, said that her participation in NWCC is part of a larger transformation in her district.
"For years, Chestnut Hill sat out on its own," said O'Neill, "and now it's part of a Northwest identity."
This shift is symbolic of the progress that Snyder wishes both for NWCC and the entirety of Northwest Philadelphia.
"If we create a network of people to help," said Snyder, "it makes us all better off – and smarter."