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Transit-rich and ripe for revival, Frankford struggles to make space for Penn Fruit landmark

An iconic 1950s supermarket is now shuttered, and a debate has grown over how best to reuse the historically preserved property in Frankford, where revitalization is much needed.

Ellie Devyatkin, the commercial corridor manager at the Frankford Community Development Corp., on Frankfort Avenue in front of the Transportation Center.
Ellie Devyatkin, the commercial corridor manager at the Frankford Community Development Corp., on Frankfort Avenue in front of the Transportation Center.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

The empty, barrel-shaped building at the northern end of the Market-Frankford Line looks like an aircraft hangar long past its useful life.

"Art is in the eye of the beholder," said City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez, who represents the community. "I'm not necessarily the best one, but that is ugly."

Where she sees an eyesore, others see an architectural gem. The building, opened in 1955 as a Penn Fruit supermarket, is one of the last well-preserved examples in the region of a once ubiquitous style meant to complement America's post-war prosperity and growing car culture.

"It's remarkably intact," said Paul Steinke, executive director for the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, which successfully petitioned in 2016 for the midcentury modernist building to be added to the city's register of historic places. When the glass is unveiled and the lights are on, Steinke said, "it virtually glows."

What all parties agree on, though, is that the old supermarket is at an enviable location. It has easy access to transit and major roadways, and is near a parcel owned by SEPTA that the transit agency wants to develop.

"That hub is one of the most transit rich and regionally accessible locations in the entire region," said Greg Krykewycz, assistant director of planning at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. "The right big project can be a catalyst for a lot of different development."

The market, vacant since the Holiday Thriftway closed two years ago, stands catty-corner from the Frankford Transportation Center, which moves about 41,000 people a day through the Market-Frankford Line and 17 bus and trackless trolley lines. It's within easy driving distance of Roosevelt Boulevard and I-95.

People trying to revitalize the neighborhood say the historic designation that protects the 73,090-square-foot building from demolition or significant alteration may have rendered it unusable.

"People are interested in the location," said Kimberly Washington, who heads the Frankford Community Development Corp. "There's zero interest in the historic designation."

Advocates for preservation, however, say Frankford should find a use for the building, which evokes a time when cars had tail fins and Leave It to Beaver was broadcast in black and white.

"I just feel people are too quick to want to throw this building away," Steinke said. "It doesn't look good right now because it's vacant. It had a 60-year run as a grocery store. I don't see why it couldn't continue."

Frankford Avenue has been an artery for Philadelphia since Pennsylvania was one of the original colonies. Washington's army and the authors of the Declaration of Independence used it, according to the Historical Society of Frankford. Today, the Market-Frankford Line's long blue spine looms over the corridor. One Frankford beautification project at the Arrott station, a small corner park painted bright pink, is named Pause Park because conversation has to either wait or be drowned out whenever a train passes.

The line is noisy, but it keeps the corridor vital. Population growth along the rail line is three times greater than the city's rate from 2010 to 2014, SEPTA officials said. Other neighborhoods along the line, such as Fishtown and Kensington, are booming, and in January, Quiñones-Sanchez introduced a bill that would facilitate elderly and affordable housing near the 46th Street, Erie-Torresdale, Allegheny, York-Dauphin Station, and Berks stops.

The area around the vacant supermarket, though, has lagged. A third of the 66,000 people in 19124 zip code live below the poverty line, according to U.S. Census statistics. Unemployment rates are higher — and median incomes lower — than in the city overall.

"This isn't a part of Philadelphia that's seen a ton of investment yet compared to some of the other neighborhoods," Krykewycz said.

SEPTA opened the current brick and glass Frankford Transportation Center in 2003, and with it diverted the tracks away from the road. The hope was that getting the street out from under the tracks' shadow might help businesses bloom.

Instead, riders who used to walk through the streets could go from trains to a parking garage or waiting buses without ever leaving the station, members of the Frankford CDC said. People now come and go without ever interacting with the neighborhood.

"A lot of the businesses that didn't survive just closed and didn't come back," Washington said.

The businesses that remain include discount clothing retailers, dollar stores, and a pawn shop where people bring back the same items each month for short-term loans to pay the bills. The arrangement is "they have six months to buy it back," said Feliciano Vega, 49, one of the owners of Gold-555. "That's collateral on a loan."

The community has big houses, but they have been subdivided into apartments that, in some cases, are leased on a weekly basis.  There are drug rehab and treatment centers on the corridor. The community has violent, property, and drug crime rates higher than the city average, according to recent police data. The number of homicide and shooting victims has  increased since 2013, though robberies have declined.

Residents are working toward change, though. The Frankford CDC and State Rep. Jason Dawkins, a Democrat who represents the area, have partnered to renovate and locate offices on nearby Paul Street and have helped local businesses get grants for facade improvements. The CDC encouraged the police to bar parking on Frankford Avenue opposite the Frankford Transportation Center, which eliminated a place for drug dealers to hide their wares.

Over the next two years, the city plans to spend $4 million to improve lighting and add cameras from the transportation center to Girard Avenue. SEPTA, meanwhile is investing $40 million to rehab the El's nearby Arrott stop.

The CDC also has stimulated dormant community activism, with residents and business owners now discussing how the neighborhood can improve.

"Small investments that aren't the most sexy investments — maybe in the aggregate, that stuff ends up being more impactful than a signature investment," Krykewycz said.

The closing of Holiday Thriftway in 2016 was a blow to the neighborhood. The store was a source of fresh food for residents and reliable foot traffic for neighboring businesses. Business owners near the market all said they lost customers when the store closed.

"This area needs a supermarket," said Mohammad Farooq, owner of Nothing over Budget, a discount store about a block from the property. "Every neighborhood needs a supermarket."

The blocks around the supermarket were described as having good food access before the Holiday Thriftway closed, according to data maintained by the city. Now, some of those blocks are considered food deserts.

Rite Aid of Pennsylvania bought the property for $3.7 million in 2007, according to city property records. "We have been and will continue to work with city and community officials to explore options for the property," a Rite Aid spokeswoman wrote in a statement.

The high ceiling makes it expensive to heat, and the glass façade is difficult to maintain, making the property unappealing to a new tenant, argue members of the Frankford CDC.  And Quinones-Sanchez said she thought that the city's soda tax has made the grocery business less appealing.

Steinke, though, said he knew of at least one city grocer interested in the property, and Rite Aid has never returned calls he made to try to connect the company with a potential tenant.

Rite-Aid and Walgreens engaged in a partial merger last year, and Steinke speculates that  Rite Aid's apparent disinterest in filling the space may be related to a Walgreen's a block away. Albertsons Cos., the company that owns Acme, has an agreement to buy Rite Aid.

Rite Aid did not reply to questions about Steinke's efforts to find a new tenant. Rite Aid could petition the city's Historical Commission to have the building's historic designation rescinded, but has not done so, city officials said.

While other former Penn Fruit buildings are still standing around the country, including a CVS on Passyunk and Oregon Avenues, almost all have been modified from their original appearance. The building on Frankford Avenue is one of the few that preserves the once familiar space-age style.

"The existing building could be adapted into a new use," Steinke said, "that could contribute to the quality of life and vitality of the Frankford neighborhood."