In the 1950s, 52nd Street was a destination commercial corridor in West Philadelphia, home to multiple movie theaters, jazz clubs, and enough stores that people in the neighborhood rarely needed to travel to Center City to do their shopping. Like many commercial corridors in town, 52nd Street fell on hard times as the years rolled on, experiencing disinvestment and reduced spending power from the neighborhood. By the time the early 2000s rolled along, a lengthy and disruptive renovation to the 52nd Street El station further challenged stores on the corridor, shuttering numerous businesses and reducing margins for countless others.
Within the last decade or so, however, 52nd Street has experienced some resurgence. An Inquirer story from last year suggested as much, noting that some new businesses have appeared on the corridor and several older buildings have undergone long deferred maintenance projects. We’d think that much of this activity has been spurred by increasing development and gentrification to the east, with developers and investors seeing opportunities for mixed-use projects on a stretch that historically has had way more businesses than it does today. And we don’t believe that the fact that 52nd Street was a protest hotspot a couple months ago and many businesses were damaged and/or looted will have any impact on this phenomenon.
If our thought process is sound and the development on 52nd Street is indeed being spurred by developers looking to target gentrifiers, then it follows that longterm residents are probably not well represented by the projects happening on the corridor. At least one project, though, is looking to make a difference for longtime residents, and that’s a planned entrepreneurship hub near 52nd & Arch. 53-59 N. 52nd St. was once home to four mixed-use buildings, but those buildings slowly got demolished over the last few decades. Now, a partnership between local entrepreneur Tayyib Smith and developer Guy Laren of Constellar Corporation wants to build a five-story building on the site.
Per a story from WHYY, the project will be a home to “commercial, business, and co-working spaces designed to benefit the surrounding West Philadelphia community.” Already, Women’s Opportunities Resource Center, a nonprofit that provides micro-loans to small businesses, has indicated an interest in leasing retail space in the building. IF Labs, a co-working space that helps get resources to startup businesses in underserved communities, would also operate out of the building. Surely, other businesses and non-profits would join in the mix and provide crucial services and resources to an area that’s historically been short on both.
Incidentally, the project rendered above isn’t guaranteed to happen since it requires a variance from the ZBA. The developers are looking for a variance for the height, to include the fifth floor on the building. A virtual community meeting a few weeks back generated some negative feedback, with concerns about gentrification and the dynamic between the partners, but still resulted in a supportive vote. This likely means that the ZBA will say yes, but you never can be sure. We certainly hope they get the approval they seek, as this project could be a huge force for good in the community and would result in a more equitable future for the 52nd Street corridor.