Fishtown: Reframing Frankford Avenue

The blocks of Frankford Avenue that snake through Fishtown and Kensington have seen a resurgence in businesses in the past five years. This trend is only expected to intensify if the proposed zoning code changes are approved, according to local business and community groups.

Many Fishtown and Kensington leaders are especially optimistic about the Zoning Code Commission’s proposed increase in “mixed-use commercial” development classifications. “I like commercial mixed-use,” said Paul Kimport, the president of the Fishtown Area Business Association and co-owner of Johnny Brenda’s bar and restaurant. Kimport explained that he himself took advantage of a mixed-use commercial property. “I didn’t want an apartment on the first floor next to Johnny Brenda’s, so I bought a hair salon.” This hair salon became part of Johnny Brenda’s. The fact that he was able to convert a hair salon into a bar and restaurant is an example of mixed-use commercial zoning.

Henry Pyatt, the commercial corridor manager for the New Kensington Community Development Corp., echoed Kimport’s sentiment. “We’ve been pushing for mixed-use commercial development,” said Pyatt. He added that this would remove barriers for developers, while still allowing for community input. Pyatt lamented the delays that current zoning classifications cause for developers.

With this in mind, other residents felt as though the proposed zoning code revisions did not go far enough. “I do think the zoning should be changed along most of Frankford Avenue,” said Amy Miller, an environmental planner with the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission and a resident of East Kensington. However, Miller’s skepticism in the proposed rewrite was evident. “Most of the characteristics of most zoning codes will stay the same,” said Miller.

One thing that all of the community leaders and residents could agree on was Frankford Avenue’s enhanced development, especially between Girard Avenue and York Street. Kimport beamed when he compared the current Frankford Avenue to its past. “I moved here eight years ago as a residential investment,” said the businessman. “It was an avenue in transition.” It was clear Kimport was trying to be diplomatic about the corridor’s checkered past.

Senior citizens who frequent the Lutheran Settlement House built upon Kimport’s comments on Frankford Avenue’s improvements by discussing the potential for further development. “There is a lot of potential,” said Pat Wonderlin, a lifelong resident of Fishtown. “We need more stores.” This prompted Wonderlin’s friend, Marie Riess, to chime in. “I see a lot of potential to build up the avenue real well,” said Riess, herself a resident of the area around Frankford Avenue for many decades.

While Fishtown and Kensington denizens were optimistic about development along Frankford Avenue, they acknowledged that some obstacles exist. One specific challenge concerns the North Delaware Avenue Special District Controls, which is a zoning overlay that covers much of Fishtown. This overlay was created to control the spread of unpopular businesses, such as strip clubs, from Delaware Avenue. The difficulty is that this affects any new restaurant. One business that had to jump through some extra hoops because of the Special District Controls was The Lola Bean coffee shop, at Frankford Avenue and Mercer Street. “We had to go through the Fishtown Neighbors Association and then get a Zoning Board of Adjustment Hearing,” said Mary Button, the owner of Lola Bean. Ultimately, the coffee shop was granted a variance, but not after a little bit of hassle.

A more general impediment to development on the corridor is abandoned properties. New Kensington’s Pyatt was especially concerned by uninhabited dwellings. “There are a lot of properties owned by the deceased, as well as state or city-owned property,” said Pyatt. These are properties that cannot be redeveloped because of the inaction of families of the deceased or the backlog of city- or state-owned properties. Another barrier toward redevelopment that was mentioned was the difficult in walking through the area. While there are sidewalks along Frankford Avenue between Girard and York, there were still criticisms about pedestrian accessibility in the neighborhoods. “There are not a lot of things in walking distance,” said Rose Brandt, the executive director of the Lutheran Settlement House. One example of this is the dearth of grocery stores within walking distance. Brandt went even further, and said that poor walkability leads to decreased neighborhood safety.

Not surprisingly, the stagnant economy was another hurdle cited toward redevelopment. Wonderlin was one person who faulted the economy as the biggest challenge. She gave the example of an incoming restaurant that was supposed to have begun construction in May, but was never built. Indeed, Kimport corroborated the challenge of the sour economy. “With the feasibility of leasing or buying, pricing becomes a challenge,” said the owner of Johnny Brenda’s. Residents also made it clear that the Frankford Avenue corridor could use some restaurants. “We are trying to crack the restaurant nut,” said Pyatt. Indeed, a search of the New Kensington CDC’s “Neighborhood Business Directory and Resource Guide” shows only four restaurants along the corridor. Of these restaurants, two are bars that serve hot food, and another is a coffee shop that serves sandwiches. None of the restaurants can be considered fine dining. Even the proposed Stephen Starr restaurant would specialize in beer rather than elegant dining.

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