The People’s Emergency Center (PEC) is at work revitalizing lower Lancaster Avenue in University City, an area tucked between the spur of development west of 30th Street and the rising popularity of neighborhoods like Spruce and Walnut Hill, and Clark and Cedar Park in West Philadelphia. Lancaster Avenue is a zipper thoroughfare that brings together five neighborhoods: Belmont, Mantua, Sanders Park, West Powelton and Mill Creek.

Looking down Lancaster

In the past two years, PEC purchased two long vacant and bruised buildings on the 3800 block of Lancaster Avenue. That and the 3900 block are areas that PEC has identified as primed for revitalization in its Make Your Mark Lower Lancaster Revitalization Plan published last summer. Its current work on the 3800 block of Lancaster is part of a larger about $4M investment project, realized through two separate but connected developments.

That includes renovations to the dilapidated Hawthorne Hall at 38th & Lancaster, a curved Victorian structure built in 1895 with Pompeiian brick colored by robust rustic brick tones and fronted by three stories of arched bay windows.

Hawthorne Hall

“For me, anyway, that building is a show stopper,” said Kira Strong, PEC vice president of community and economic development. PEC purchased 3859-61 Lancaster Ave. in June 2011 for $205K. It purchased 3849 Lancaster Ave. for $385K in July 2012.

According to Strong, work could begin in July to renovate 3859-61 Lancaster Ave. The commercial arm will be completed first and when finished will occupy a West Philly branch of the Mighty Writers, which signed on for a two-year lease. Upstairs, four market-rate apartments will be fabricated.

3849 Lancaster Ave. is a project that may be a year away. PEC envisions transforming the space, which includes a second-floor theatre space into a ground-floor restaurant with a second-floor performance space. That upstairs theatre space is now a dejected space being used by artists from nomadic collective Rabid Hands, who are creating an installation that will be featured during the upcoming Hidden City Festival. The Rabid Hands are now fundraising for the piece.

Closer look

The improvements will help bring new retail to the area and help to strengthen the Lancaster Avenue commercial corridor and contribute to its diverse character. Lancaster Avenue is a street caught between blight and redevelopment. Closer to Drexel around 34th and Market there are newer retail opportunities like coffee shops. Flying Kite media setup a popup hub in a storefront on the 4000 block of Lancaster Avenue last summer. In the winter, the University City District installed new pedestrian lighting along the 3400 block of Lancaster Avenue. As improvements like this continue to develop along Lancaster Avenue, one can imagine the appeal the neighborhood offers. It’s less expensive than many other parts of West Philly, and the trolley runs right into town. That considered, the 3800 block of Lancaster Avenue might soon be the center point of a new rising neighborhood.

–Lou Mancinelli