Francisville: Commercial Redevelopment is Progressing

Penelope Giles, the founder of the Francisville Neighborhood Development Corp., has led a movement to revitalize Francisville.

From an outsider’s perspective, Francisville has always appeared to be living in the shadow of its neighbor, Fairmount.  While Fairmount was developed with high-price townhouses and fancy restaurants, Francisville remained, for the most part, in the same state. That’s not for a lack of trying, however, and recent projects, spearhead by the Francisville Neighborhood Redevelopment Corp., are aiming to give the neighborhood a major facelift.

Penelope Giles, the founder of the Francisville Neighborhood Development Corp., has led a movement to revitalize Francisville.

In 2009, a 1.5-acre large lot in Francisville, located at 19th and Wylie, was made available to potential development plans. Two groups, the Hankin Group and Onion Flats LLC, emerged as the primary candidates for the project.  The Hankin Group proposed a collection of 26 townhouses and 60 condominium units.  Onion Flats, meanwhile, proposed a five-story condominium building that would also offer ample green space, some of which would be designated for a vineyard that the community could use.

After a series of meetings in which developers laid out their plan and listened to the concerns of the community, the neighborhood voted 38-2 in favor of the Onion Flats proposal, largely due to the green space that was being promised.

Francisville residents exit their apartment building. The neighborhood is looking to add a variety of commerce to the area.

“[Onion Flats] had a really strong environmental component, which a lot of people in the neighborhood are interested in,” said Kristin Szwajkowski, a board member of FNDC.  “The neighborhood preferred what Onion Flats was presenting. They really went through our neighborhood plan and touched on all of the points. They understood what the community was trying to do.”

“The community voted in favor of the design that the Onion Flats presented,” added Penelope Giles, founder of FNDC. “We didn’t really care who developed it. When the two developers presented their projects, it wasn’t about the developers, it was about the design.”

Despite the overwhelming support that Onion Flats received from the community, the city decided to go with the Hankin Group’s proposal.  According to the Office of Housing and Community Development, the decision was largely due to the fact that the Hankin Group offered $900,000 for the property, as opposed to Onion Flats’ offer of no initial payment and also planned to self finance the actual construction. At the time, residents were frustrated over the lack of their voice being heard, but still remained optimistic regarding the Hankin Group project, which would also include a café. Two years later, however, the land, known as the triangle, remains undeveloped.

The Triangle is the largest undeveloped land in Francisville, remains empty.

“It’s two years later, and nothing’s been developed there,” Szwajkowski said. “We went through this whole process. We were told that something would be happening in 2011 and then that got pushed back to 2012. We’re now halfway through 2011 and there are no signs that they’ll meet their deadline of 2012.

“We’re not sure when the triangle is going to be built up and we can’t keep waiting on that,” Szwajkowski added.

As the developmental process of that particular land has stalled, the neighborhood has shifted its redevelopment plan’s attention elsewhere. The Vineyards at 16th Street, a development in which the FNDC has had a significant say in, will consist of 60 townhouses condos and will be located at 16th and Ridge Avenue. The complex will also feature a small marketplace. While the majority of the condos will be priced at less than $200,000, there will also be penthouse units that will cost more than $500,000.

Meanwhile, the Francis Village Marketplace will also be built along Ridge Avenue. The marketplace, which will feature locally grown vegetables along with other products, is expected to open in 2012 but may first start as an open-air marketplace until a consumer base can be established. The two projects, along with the possibility of future endeavors, is part of the FNDC’s plan, Giles said.

“When we started [the FNDC], it was because we wanted to revitalize the commercial quarter,” Giles said. “Most longtime residents remember Ridge Avenue as a place where you could buy anything and everything… People are very excited. The old residents and the new residents are excited about the prospects of Ridge Avenue having a marketplace where people can walk and shop in their neighborhood.”

“Ridge Avenue is going to start picking up,” Szwajkowski added. “The big transformative catalyst will be the Vineyards at 16th and Francis Village Marketplace. Those are the two developments that the neighborhood is looking forward to.”

With 43.3 percent of its residents below the poverty line and a median annual family income of $20,496, Francisville’s economy does not match up with that of Fairmount, which features just 21.2 percent of its residents below the poverty line and a median annual family income of $50,364.  Because of this fact, along with some racial issues, Francisville has stereotypically been seen as a bad neighborhood, Giles said.

“You can’t judge a book by its cover,” Giles said. “A lot of the stereotypes about this neighborhood, even at its worse, weren’t true. I’m a product of this neighborhood. I’m a product of its school system. A lot of the rhetoric that came out of Fairmount, quite frankly, came from prejudiced people.”

“The neighborhood is definitely good,” Szwajkowski added. “There’s lot of opportunity here. We’re open-minded and open to development. We need more density and more people. We’re willing to work with developers. We’re an easy neighborhood to work with. We want more development. More people will help bring back Ridge Avenue, which is what everybody wants.”

With its eyes set on the future development along Ridge Avenue, Francisville has a lot to look forward to in the coming years. However, despite its insistence on establishing its own personality and culture, the community cannot help but notice some of the differences between Francisville and Fairmount, especially in the shopping aspect. With that in mind, the desire for the amenities has become even stronger.

“We want stores, places to shop, restaurants and the kind of things that Fairmount has,” Szwajkowski said.

If everything progresses as planned, the neighborhood will have its wish within the next few years.

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