By Jennifer Lee and James Shields

Mount Airy: Group Moves Forward with Transit Village

Mount Airy: Group Moves Forward with Transit Village
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After receiving a $100,000 grant from the city, Mt. Airy, USA, has moved forward with initial planning stages for a transit-orientated development at the intersection of Washington Lane and Chew Avenue. This was part of the $1 million worth of city grants the city’s Department of Commerce gave to local non-profit organizations.

A vacant lot sits on the corner of Washington Lane and Chew Avenue.

The non-profit community development organization, Mt. Airy, USA, was one of the nine organizations chosen to jump-start development projects.

What is now an empty six -acre lot will be transformed into a residential and commercial destination for residents and visitors of the city alike. The space is adjacent to the historical 55-acre Awbury Arboretum and the SEPTA’s Chestnut Hill East regional rail stop at Washington Lane.

“This is the largest developing site in Philadelphia,” said Mt. Airy USA’s Executive Director Anuj Gupta.
“It is part of Mayor Nutter’s vision to create 500 acres of parkland and green space in the city. Transit-orientated development has become the avant-garde of urban development.”

The grant will be used to fund the initial planning stages for the estimated $60 million project currently titled the Mt. Airy Transit Village.

Many locals use public transportation to get around the city.

In the fall of 2010, the development received an additional $2.5 million in government allocations. Gupta plans to use the new market tax credit that encourages development in low to moderate-income areas.

The organization has planned the development of the project in four phases. The first phase will include securing financing from commercial tenants by next fall.

Gupta said he hopes to attract “critical anchor tenants” like banks or grocery stores to insure large amounts of traffic. Don’t expect to see the golden arches of McDonalds or the grin of Colonel Sanders anytime soon.“We don’t see [fast food chains] as mission orientated for Mt. Airy USA,” said Gupta.

The succeeding phases will focus on building a strong residential community with an estimated 220 units. Construction of these initial retail and business spaces is planned to begin in the following spring.

Cars pass by the busy intersection of Washington Lane and Chew Avenue during rush hour.

Mt. Airy, USA began as a volunteer organization in 1980. Its goal was to revitalize the Mt. Airy corridor on Germantown Avenue and rehabilitate the multitude of closed storefronts. “There is some very strong civic groups there with people who have invested and stayed in the community for a very long time. By no means does Mt. Airy, USA, automatically transform the community,” said Gupta. The organization’s offices are located at 6703 Germantown Ave.

It wasn’t until 1994 that the organization hired its first staff member, a housing counselor. Presently the Mt. Airy, USA, team is made up of 10 full-time employees. The board of directors is made up of 27 members including lawyers, community activists, realtors and small business owners.

The biggest issue Mt. Airy, USA, has faced recently is the foreclosure epidemic that has infected many residential areas throughout the country.

“Philadelphia has been spared by the devastation, but thousands and thousands of people are still losing their homes,” said Gupta.The corporation has aided local residents facing foreclosure by introducing monthly educational meetings.

The Transit Village project is located next to SEPTA's Regional Rail and is adjacent to a 55 acre arboretum.

 

On the third and fourth Thursday of every month at 6 p.m., Mt. Airy, USA, hosts free meetings with invited experts to help those in need.

“We hope to educate people on how to navigate home purchasing decisions including home inspections and loans,” said Gupta.

In addition to the free meetings, one-on-one counseling with a home-buying expert is offered. It was obvious to Gupta that such help was needed.

“We received 52 calls in the first week [of the program]. They are at the end of the line. They are going to lose their homes.”

According to the 2000 Census, East and West Mt. Airy had a combined population of 28,873 with an average household income of $71,604 and $100,851, respectively. In both areas the average household income has decreased over 15 percent in the past decade.

The organization will continue to fulfill its initial goal of cleaning up the Mt. Airy corridor of Germantown Avenue through the Mt. Airy Placemaking and Street Improvement Plan. It is a collaborative effort between Mt. Airy, USA, and consultants, led by a steering committee, to continue the revitalization of the avenue from Washington Lane to Cresheim Valley Road.

Anju Gupta, the executive director of Mt. Airy, USA, responds to e-mails from local homeowners seeking help.

The initiative describes place-making in its pamphlet as a process of “rethinking and redesigning places to make them more attractive, more interesting and more compatible with the people who use them.”It seeks to end the discrepancies between the beautiful aesthetics of the neighborhood and the often littered, vacant streets of Germantown Avenue.

 

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