I was excited to attend the unveiling of the “Model Block” yesterday – the result of a nearly 18 month effort to bring technical assistance and resources to the New Kensington Community Development Corporation in Fishtown, Philadelphia. The program, called “Corridors of Retail Excellence” is run by LISC MetroEdge (LME). As a consultant to LISC, my job was to help diagnose the corridor challenges and identify a menu of strategic improvements that would accomplish multiple goals; address the unique conditions of the street, deliver visible impact for pedestrians and drivers along the busy thorough fare, and leverage additional funds…a tall order! But we did it! Over the course of the project, two new retailers opened up on the Model Block, one restaurant is slated to open shortly, and an additional $25k in funds were secured to fund the additional marketing and promotional materials for the district.
One exciting component of the project was an interactive fence that will serve to bridge the new retail node with the rest of the district. The fence is designed to host activities, from an impromptu First Friday Gallery show to a sidewalk sale. The program also included storefront improvements for local businesses and was funded by a $98,000 grant from the PNC Foundation and delivered by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) to the New Kensington Community Development Corporation (NKCDC).
The Interactive Fence with flexible “shelves” that can serve as
benches, display tables or tables. Just pull up a chair and enjoy!
The goal of the Model Block program was to accelerate the economic revitalization of Fishtown.  In addition to the interactive fence around a vacant lot anchoring the block of 300 East Girard Avenue, four properties between Marlborough and East Oxford Streets will receive façade improvements.  The businesses are Keys to the Attic (314 E Girard), NicNacs4Peanuts (312 E Girard), Dash Delivery (310 E Girard), and Push Skate Gallery (306 E Girard).
BEFORE
AFTER
East Girard businesses suffer from significant gaps in the retail mix and lack of continuous activity despite the high visibility of the corridor.  The Model Block initiative seeks to spark investment along the street by establishing a model for improvements on one block ripe for retail activity and economic improvement.
“Redeveloping small properties can be a big challenge. The PNC funding gave us direct access to LISC experts, a professional design team and NKCDC staff w

ho all went above and beyond. The result is budget-friendly and visually appealing.  It addresses crucial design elements in a way that can be applied to almost any neighborhood project. This experience will certainly shape our future development decisions,” said Josh Olivo, Principal URBAN-CORE Development, owner of 310 & 312 E. Girard.

A National Program
Fishtown was one of six communities nationwide selected through a competitive process for the LISC program called Corridors of Retail Excellence (CORE).  It’s a national initiative delivering visible improvements and capacity-building in low and moderate-income communities.
“The CORE program provides communities with access to both expertise and funds to encourage additional community investments,” said Terri Copeland, Vice President of Community Development Banking from PNC. “Commercial corridor revitalization provides an opportunity to attract residents from different neighborhoods.  In achieving that, business corridors are transformed from a dividing line between communities, to a bridge.”
For Fishtown, LISC gathered intelligence through focus groups and individual meetings with local business owners, through market data analysis and through a study of best practices in other LISC communities.  Other selected communities include 52nd Street in Philadelphia, Lawrenceville and Mount Washington in Pittsburgh and the Quad Communities and Uptown in Chicago.
CORE provides technical assistance to businesses and business-support groups to attract customers and improve profitability; facilitate property improvements; develop capacity and expanded leadership in local communities and business-development organizations; and engage stakeholders in developing strategies.
Catalyst for the Community
According to Angie Williamson, economic development director of NKCDC, the grant from the PNC Foundation is a strong catalyst for additional investments in the neighborhood. It funded a Storefront Improvement Menu so business owners can easily make simple updates to their properties such as signage, lighting, awnings and security enhancements.
“The grant also gave us the impetus to acquire funding from the City’s Storefront Improvement Program (SIP).  It reimburses store owners up to 50 percent for their investment in commercial corridor façade improvements,” she said. “We also secured $25,000 from Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development for a comprehensive marketing plan to create branding and direct further streetscape improvements.”
According to LISC commercial corridor consultant Larisa Ortiz, similar low-cost, highly visible improvements around the country have inspired additional investments by business and property owners. “The CORE approach has worked in communities from Phoenix to Rhode Island and has been an amazing catalyst for neighborhood transformation and the leveraging of additional community resources.” Andy Frishkoff, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) adds “We are so pleased to connect national resources to our local community partners. This project will serve as a model for future LISC investments along Philadelphia’s commercial corridors.
Interactive Fence
Designed by MAKE. architecture+planning, the Model Block includes a modular interactive fence with multi-level platforms that can serve as benches, tables and shelves.  “We looked at these vacant lots and tried to imagine ways of activating these areas,” said Brian Szymanik of MAKE. “We thought that if we could invite people to spend some time in front of them, then perhaps they could attract life in what are currently empty spaces.
“We like to think of the system we’ve designed as urban infrastructure.  Ideally, this fence should allow for a wide variety of uses to activate the corner of the block and support the community, local retail, and neighborhood residents.  A fence is almost always used as a way to separate people, but this project asks the question whether or not it is possible for a fence to be something that brings us together.”