The Washington Avenue Property Owners Association is working to gentrify a drab, once-industrial warehouse strip into a residential/business district.
It has been slow going, but the South Philadelphia group has been joined by major players including developer Bart Blatstein; the owners of the massive Frankford Chocolate Factory at 2101 Washington; and local business owners eager to sell or develop their properties into houses and apartments with retail shops on the ground floor.
At least a half-dozen developments are under consideration. Blatstein's proposed project, now being reviewed, calls for two towers of 32 stories and 1,600 apartments, plus 700 parking spaces. The first tower would rise on the northwest corner of Broad and Carpenter Streets, the second at 13th Street and Washington Avenue.
West of Broad, Tom and Robert Donatucci are moving ahead with plans to turn properties that used to house car-repair shops or storage into a hipster-friendly beer garden and restaurant at 2118 Washington Ave.
"All the stars are aligning," said Tom Donatucci, part-owner of Donatucci Kitchens. The hope is that a restaurant could water the cuisine desert and bring young people out at night.
"When people leave their homes, we don't want them to just turn north to go out to eat and drink. We want them to turn south and come down here," Donatucci said.
At 1601 Washington Ave., developer Rory Scerri-Marion aims to build a mixed-use residential project. At 18th and Washington, Mario Carosella, owner of C&R Building Supply, envisions a multifamily development. At 2401 Washington Ave., two local developers hope to build more apartments.
Carosella would like "to get a big national retailer down here. It might be the whole block, but if they can put it together, it could really work."
Washington Avenue boasts long, wide blocks, but cars still park in the center of the thoroughfare. Business owners once needed the parking, but some have since come to loathe the asphalt expanse.
A streetscape with trees, pedestrian walkways, or something more bicycle-friendly than forklifts "has to meet everyone's criteria. The heavy trucks are going away," Carosella said. "They used to come to our place, but we bought five acres in West Philly to alleviate the traffic and congestion."
Rezoning is a major issue for the district, currently designated industrial. The city Planning Commission could recommend that it be designated either an industrial commercial mixed-use zone or an industrial residential mixed-use zone.
"The tipping point will be the city creating zoning conducive to development," said Jerry Kranzel, broker for the Chocolate Factory. "It was a warehouse location forever, but there's been so much change around, it's inevitable."
Washington Avenue property owners still need to envision what they want the neighborhood to look like.
"It could be something like Blatstein's Piazza, with density and mixed use," Kranzel said. "Washington Avenue needs a streetscape. Extend the sidewalks out and green it. You don't need a street anymore to accommodate tractor-trailers."
Scerri-Marion says the Planning Commission ruled unanimously for his project, "but the process has been long, expensive, and a struggle."
"The irony is, we felt like we did everything we could as responsible developers who want to be part of growth in a neighborhood, and listen to what the greater community wants." When he talked with Trader Joe's about leasing space on Washington Avenue, he said, "we couldn't guarantee we'd get the approvals from the city in time."
Who benefits? Property owners north of Washington Avenue.
"It's going to be instrumental in combining the urban fabric," said Jacob Cooper of MSC Realty, who acts as Donatucci's broker. "Point Breeze benefits the most, and it draws residents south from Graduate Hospital."
There will still be vacant lots to contend with at the northwest corner of Broad and Washington, some owned by the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. And the fate of a massive tract that occupies all but one corner of a block bounded by Washington, 24th Street, Carpenter Street, and 23d Street remains uncertain.