Mantua artist's resistance pushes Philly to build a better grocery store
A developer's proposal for a mixed-use, mixed-income project could be a model for bringing small groceries to Philadelphia's food deserts.
Artist James Dupree was merely trying to hang on to his spacious Mantua studio when he challenged the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority's attempt to seize the workshop on Haverford Avenue for a massive, suburban-style supermarket. His bare-knuckle fight ended up saving the neighborhood.
Dupree is a widely respected artist, with paintings in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the idea of booting him out of the struggling West Philadelphia enclave, where he mentors local kids, was counterproductive on its face. But the authority's proposed replacement, which had begun with the worthy idea of bringing fresh food to Mantua, was flawed six ways from Sunday: The authority had assigned the sprawling site between 36th and 37th Streets to a developer with major political connections and only minimal experience. Even though Mantua is a neighborhood of small rowhouses and narrow streets, the developer's plan called for plopping down a classic, highway-style retail cluster in the middle of those residences. Had the city bothered to do any market research, it would have quickly realized the location was all wrong for such an auto-intensive project.
It took Dupree two years of legal wrangling (along with some hefty lawyer fees) before the redevelopment authority finally cried uncle in 2014 and agreed to let him keep his studio. Because his building sits smack in the center of the site, the decision effectively forced the agency to jettison the developer and his half-baked scheme.
Now the authority has come back with a new proposal and new development team. The plan is the polar opposite of the previous approach: It's dense, urban, and inclusive. Instead of casting a big-box supermarket into a lonely sea of parking, the developers make the grocery an element in a larger residential project, one that will include 45 subsidized apartments for Mantua's working poor.
Oh, and Dupree's exuberantly decorated studio building gets to be the centerpiece in a new neighborhood public space. If the developers can pull it off — still a big if — the design could be a model for how to do supermarkets right in the food deserts of Philadelphia.
The city has been progressive enough to understand that the absence of stores selling fresh fruits and vegetables is a major health concern for low-income neighborhoods, yet for a long time it has insisted on addressing the problem with outmoded, parking-heavy solutions that harm their surroundings.
Over the last decade, it has squandered immense tracts of land in West Parkside and North Philadelphia's Golden District by handing them over to suburban developers. Sure, new supermarkets got built, but you can hardly consider them neighborhood destinations, given how difficult it is to walk across their vast asphalt Saharas. Meanwhile, the need for affordable housing in those areas continues to go unmet.
It took the redevelopment authority's new, young director, Gregory Heller (36!), to recognize what a wasted opportunity those retail monocultures are. When the authority put the Mantua site back on the market last year, the language in the prospectus stressed the importance of design and social impact, in the hope of generating a more urban response. The new proposal — a joint venture by Lomax Real Estate Partners, Fuchs Realty Partners and the Mount Vernon Manor Community Development Corp. — marries those goals together brilliantly.
Working with architect Paul Vernon of KSK, they divided the project into three, freestanding sections that orbit Dupree's studio in the center of the block. Not only does this approach break down the scale of the sprawling site, it will enable the developers to build out the 224-unit project as the market evolves.
The group still needs to win the blessing of the Mantua Civic Association, which was scheduled to meet Thursday night to discuss the project, as well a height variance from the Zoning Board. Assuming the team gets a thumbs up, the lead developer, Charles Lomax, says it will start with 72-unit mid-rise apartment building at 37th and Haverford. Twenty percent of the units will be available to people earning below Philadelphia's median income, about $49,920 for a family of four.
Instead of the kind of superstore pushed by the previous developer, Lomax's group has set its sights on a more realistic model, a 15,000-square-foot grocer that will occupy the ground floor. While it's smaller than the megastores typically found in highway locations, Lomax told me it's big enough to offer a full array of fresh produce. And unlike the megastore, the neighborhood-size store requires only 56 parking spaces.
The other two phases of the project will be made up of three-story rowhouses divided into apartments. Lomax has built several complexes on this model, including one at 46th and Sansom in Spruce Hill. It's a bizarre format that requires a separate entrance and staircase for every three units. Why not just build a mid-rise apartment building? Although Lomax admits a lot of space is wasted, he says he likes the format because the rowhouses can be converted later to private homes.
KSK's design is a big step up from Lomax's earlier buildings, which feature arrays of gas meters next to the front doors. The renderings promise that the patchwork facade will include brick sections at the corners and large windows along the street. Let's hope that the redevelopment authority also requires Lomax to create enclosures to hide the meters. Also, if the developers were smart, they would flip the apartment and store entrances, so the grocery is accessed from the more visible corner of 37th and Haverford.
My favorite part of the plan is the network of interior streets, which give the project its name: Village Square on Haverford. Although cars will be allowed, the idea is to treat the streets as a plaza by finishing them with decorative pavers. KSK has arranged the site so that the east facade of the grocery and Dupree's studio frame the main plaza. The grocery will have garage-style glass doors opening onto that space, which can be outfitted with tables or a stage. Dupree told me he's hoping to open his studio for performance events.
To cobble together so much public space, the developers virtually eliminated the residential parking. It's a good trade that will benefit the neighborhood many times over. For those worried about having to compete for on-street parking, keep in mind that there are plenty of spaces on the perimeter of the block.
The developers also deserve kudos for pricing 20 percent of their units for low-income residents. Despite Mantua's Oz-like view of the Center City skyline, it's one of the most devastated neighborhoods in the city. The population has plunged from 20,000 in 1940 to roughly 6,000 today, and just a third of the residents own their homes.
Yet, because of its proximity to Drexel University and its development juggernaut, student housing developments are lapping at Mantua's front door. If Amazon chooses to put its new headquarters in Philadelphia's Schuylkill Yards, Mantua will be at the head of the line for gentrification. Developments like the one proposed by Lomax can cushion the onslaught. What a lucky break that James Dupree was there to keep this valuable parcel from being wasted by a supermarket parking lot.