Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Wasteland at the End of the Street

The shopping district in our neighborhood has two main streets. Germantown Avenue, the older of the two, follows an old Indian trail (later a turnpike) starting from the oldest part of the city and meandering through Northwest Philadelphia and into suburbs that were once countryside. Its shops are struggling or abandoned in many places now, but it was once a major retail center in many of the neighborhoods that it touched.

Crossing Germantown Avenue, about three blocks from where I live, is Chelten Avenue. Chelten Avenue is straight, running roughly east to west. Going west from Germantown Avenue to Wayne Avenue (another major cross street), Chelten passes through our main shopping district. It ends about half a mile west of Wayne Avenue. At its west end is Alden Park Manor, an impressive apartment complex that was the first co-op apartment in Philadelphia.

For most of the distance between Germantown and Wayne Avenues, Chelten Avenue retains the air of an urban shopping street. The shops are close together and easily reached on foot. Many are owner-operated and actually provide the kind of personal service that big box stores claim to offer.

But, like many urban shopping streets, Chelten Avenue is in trouble. It has lost the mid-size department store that anchored it at one end in the glory days. The smaller department store at the midpoint of the district is long gone, replaced by a charter school with discount stores at street level. Competition from big box stores and the current recession have left many of the shops closed and shuttered. And at its west end, the district has been hurt by poor design and planning choices.

The western anchor of the district has for many years been a supermarket with its attendant parking lot. The supermarket is still there and doing good business. Its parking lot fronts on the street, but it has done this for many years. The problems at the end of the district lie on the other three corners of the intersection.

Directly across Wayne Avenue from the supermarket is a building that once housed a local branch of Sears, Roebuck. The Sears branch closed about 25 years ago when Sears decided to close smaller local branches and concentrate on the suburbs. This was bad for Chelten Avenue, as it was for many other urban shopping streets with small Sears branches.

Diagonally across from the supermarket is a school designed, or so it appears, chiefly for security. It resembles nothing so much as a prison built of the reinforced concrete that was fashionable during the 1970s. One can imagine it withstanding intensive shelling. It is now a successful charter school. The new proprietors have improved the color scheme, planted trees, and done extensive landscaping. They have done their best, but even their best efforts cannot overcome the building's design problems. Among those problems is a featureless wall that runs along Wayne Avenue for more than half of a city block.

Across Chelten Avenue from the supermarket is a Burger King with its attendant parking lot. After a record-breaking snowstorm in February of this year, Burger King carefully plowed its parking lot but did not clear its sidewalks—this, in a neighborhood that is still one of the most walkable in the city, and on a street where, despite its problems, there is still a great deal of foot traffic.

The west end of our shopping district has become a wasteland of parking lots and blank walls, with yet another fast food franchise under construction in the old Sears parking lot.

Germantown is in fact a strong, beautiful and walkable neighborhood, with history, trees, gardens, and a diverse population. It has many active neighborhood associations, several good schools, and major churches with good community programs. It is an interesting place to live.

But, like many neighborhoods, it survives in spite of our planning (or lack of planning, which is itself a kind of planning-by-default), not because of it. What happened to Chelten Avenue in the last thirty years is repeated in neighborhoods and suburban towns throughout the country: competition from malls and big box stores hurt the local shops. The need for parking damaged the streetscape and made walking less attractive.

The sad part is that we cannot go on like this. Fuel costs even now are discouraging driving and making walkable neighborhoods more desirable. The future of the classic suburban shopping mall is in doubt. We are going to need our neighborhood shopping districts. The question is whether we will have them.