As Jeff Brown's long-in-the-works ShopRite takes shape at the corner of Fox and Roberts Streets in Allegheny West, the area supermarket mogul is talking about what's next -- both for that neighborhood and for his business.

The 71,000 square foot Brown's Super Store at the Bakers Centre site is now under construction on a parcel adjacent to the former Tastykake factory building. It's his eleventh urban superstore, and Brown said he sees potential for five or six more in the same model -- a large, multi-purpose ShopRite in a center with ample parking, like the Park West center at 52nd and Parkside streets.

Brown remains bullish on the Bakers Centre site, and the immediate area. It's a crossroads of sorts, not quite North Philadelphia but disconnected from much of the rest of Northwest Philadelphia by Route 1 and busy Henry Avenue. It's been decades since major retailers pulled out of Allegheny West, and Brown is vocal in his belief that the time is right to move back in.

"Yes, it's a lower income community, but it is a good community," he said, with moderate crime and stable residency. "This is everything we look for in an urban site. This is our sweet spot." The Bakers Centre store will include other services such as a bank, community rooms and even a health clinic.

'Breaking Ground in Food Deserts'

But Brown said he is also actively pursuing plans for smaller-footprint stores, about 40,000 square feet and with less parking, to fit better into underserved urban neighborhoods in North and Southwest Philadelphia. The move comes as other smaller, limited-inventory grocery retailers, such as Fresh Grocer and Bottom Dollar Food, are also rapidly expanding in the city and nearby suburbs.

"My goal is to make sure that every person in Philadelphia has access to fresh food," Brown said.

Brown made his remarks Wednesday morning at a panel discussion, "Breaking Ground in Food Deserts," held by the International Council of Shopping Centers' governmental relations and Next Generations committees. The meeting took place in a conference room at the Temple Health System Administrative Services Building, located in a former industrial site on Hunting Park Avenue.

Other participants included Baker Centre developer Michael Grasso, State Sen. Vincent Hughes -- fresh off a successful bid for re-election Tuesday night -- Al Spivey Jr., chief of staff for Fourth District Councilman Curtis Jones; Joe Walsh from Pep Boys, and a representative of Subway restaurants, one of which will be located in Bakers Centre.

Hughes, who helped steer state funding toward both Bakers Centre and the Parkside shopping center, said retailers overlook these neighborhoods at their peril.

"Most people overlook these communities, they think there's nothing there," Hughes said. "There are opportunities to make a nice piece of change but also to provide a vital public service" by bringing fresh food, jobs and opportunity.

Continuing the momentum

Moderated by Ann Nevins, senior vice president of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp., the meeting was partly an update on the progress of development at the 220,000 square-foot, 30-acre Bakers Centre project, and in a larger sense, a call to continue this type of development in other underserved urban areas.

Bakers Centre will include the ShopRite store along with several attached pad-site retailers facing Roberts Avenue. On the Hunting Park Avenue side, the site will have several freestanding retailers including a Restaurant Depot, a Ross Dress for Less, and a projected adaptive re-use of the landmark Tastykake factory building.

"This is an area that needs more development, and I think the people in this room are the ones to get it done," Grasso said, noting that projects call for about 30,000 customers a week for the center.

Joe Walsh, director of real estate for Pep Boys, which has long called the East Falls/Allegheny West area home, said his company's future expansion plans call for stores that include tire and auto service centers like one on Ridge Avenue in Andorra. Customers don't just want to buy auto parts anymore, he said, they want to be able to bring their vehicles in for service.

'There's gold in the 'hood'

For the rest of the area, Spivey and Hughes discussed priority areas for future development, especially the former Budd Company site and the Henry Avenue campus where the city's Youth Study Center has spent the last few years. The YSC will soon to move into a new home in West Philadelphia, leaving the former Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute site empty.

Spivey, whose boss felt the East Falls community's wrath last year when a hastily-announced and ultimately unsuccessful plan to relocate the police Special Victims Unit to the EPPI site emerged, said there are no firm plans yet for the property but was adamant that community involvement would be a central focus.

"We are pro-development in the Fourth District," Spivey told the audience, made up of representatives of development companies and area retailers. "There's gold in the 'hood. You've got to dig down a little deeper, and you've got to refine it differently. But it's there."

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