Arts looking north
Improvements to Avenue of the Arts on North Broad Street are planned to start in December.
EVERY WEEKDAY, the 40 members of the Pennsylvania Ballet arrive from all over the region for a 9:30 a.m. class at the Ballet's new headquarters on North Broad Street.
The leap from the old studios on South Broad, 10 blocks south of City Hall, to what is called Avenue of the Arts North is an important part of what city officials want to see happening on North Broad, seen for years as drab and boring.
The Ballet moved into its new space in January. The building, on the former site of a garage for armored trucks, has an entrance across Wood Street from Roman Catholic High School, and is known as the Louise Reed Center for Dance.
Location was everything, said executive director Michael Scolamiero.
"It was on Broad Street, very close access to the Vine Street Expressway," he said. "Considering our goal of opening a ballet school and attracting students from New Jersey and the western suburbs, that proximity was very important."
Rehearsals were intense earlier this week as the dancers prepared for performances of "George Balanchine's The Nutcracker," beginning next Saturday.
Scolamiero said a second phase of construction is planned. It is expected to include a studio that is the same size as the Academy of Music's stage and a landscaped courtyard facing Broad Street.
Last month, former governor and mayor Ed Rendell, who helped create Avenue of the Arts Inc., was part of AAI's 20th anniversary celebration.
Although most people think of the Avenue as South Broad Street from City Hall to Washington Avenue, it actually extends to Glenwood Avenue in North Philadelphia, said Avenue of the Arts executive director Karen Lewis.
And in December, Lewis said, a long-planned project focusing on North Broad is expected to begin: A 2 1/2-mile stretch of stainless-steel streetlights in the center of Broad Street, from Spring Garden Street to Glenwood Avenue.
Lewis said construction of the 55-feet-tall "light masts" is expected to take about a year.
Meanwhile, a 3-mile streetscape project will bring new trees and other sidewalk plantings to the Avenue from City Hall to Glenwood Avenue.
"It has been a labor of love that we've been working on since 2008," Lewis said of the landscaping and lighting project.
She said that because Broad Street is also Pennsylvania Route 611, officials had to bring in the state Department of Transportation as well.
For years, Stacey Dowling, owner of Dowling's Palace, on Broad Street below Master in North Philadelphia, has had a vision that this part of the city could draw tourists in much the same way as Harlem and New Orleans.
"People have compared North Philadelphia, where we have the Uptown, the Met and Freedom Theater, to Harlem," he said. "We could have these thriving cultural institutions, and we could have done a better job of letting people know we are there."
He also regards New Orleans as "a perfect example" of what North Philly can be. "You think of New Orleans, you think of jazz and food," he said.
Dowling has joined forces with the developers of the old Blue Horizon next door. The former boxing arena is being converted into a new hotel called Hotel Blue.
Greg Reaves, with Mosaic Development Partners, and Scott Orens, of Orens Brothers Real Estate, hope to begin construction to convert the Blue Horizon into a 96-room hotel by April.
Orens said the burst of development by Temple University in recent years motivated him into investing in the area.
In early November, Temple said it was interested in buying the old William Penn High School, a sprawling property between Broad and 13th and between Master and Girard.
The Blue Horizon renovation will involve tearing down the old Dowling Palace and putting up a building with access to Dowling's jazz lounge and restaurant from inside the hotel, Reaves said.
Dowling said it's about time the city focused on Avenue of the Arts North.
"I am hoping this is a turning point," Dowling said of the news that work would soon start on beautifying North Broad.
The reawakening of the Blue Horizon is one of several development projects expected to begin in the coming weeks.
Congregation Rodeph Shalom synagogue, on North Broad near Green, is about to start a $15 million expansion project.
Dena Herrin, congregation president, said the expansion is necessary because the synagogue has grown tremendously in the last five years.
"We are adding over 18,000 square feet of new space, but we are also bringing the building into the 21st century," she said. "It's 85 years old and not very accessible, and not very welcoming."
The Reform congregation plans to add classrooms and gathering space, as well as new gallery space for the Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art, housed at the synagogue for 35 years.
Herrin said the congregation will take down chain-link fencing and add a courtyard and a modern entrance with windows to make the exterior more inviting.
Herrin said many people "don't know that we're open."
The synagogue's expansion comes on top of a recent investment of $10 million to renovate the building and to purchase and renovate a former automobile lot next door. About three years ago, it opened the Buerger Early Learning Center, which is open to preschool children of all faiths.
"We see ourselves as not just a center of Jewish life, but for community life on North Broad Street," Herrin said.
Eric Blumenfeld was an early arrival on North Broad as developer of the Loft 640 apartments,Marc Vetri's Osteria and Alla Spina restaurants, and Stephen Starr's Route 6 restaurant. He said he plans to begin construction of the old Thaddeus Stevens School, near Broad and Spring Garden, as early as next month.
He said he plans to rename the Stevens school - known for its mural facing Broad Street - as the Mural Arts Building, and to convert it into a 60-unit apartment building.
In October 2012, Blumenfeld reacquired the Divine Lorraine Hotel, at Broad Street and Fairmount Avenue, and entered into an agreement with the Holy Ghost Headquarters Church, the owners of the Metropolitan Opera House, at Broad and Poplar. He said work on those two properties could begin next spring.
Blumenfeld said he wants to put 136 apartments in the Divine Lorraine, and to convert the old Met into a concert venue that could include boxing and mixed-martial-arts events, as well as a New Orleans-style restaurant.
He sounded optimistic despite reports of legal battles with a former business partner and being slapped with a September violation for demolition work inside the Met without a permit. Department of Licenses & Inspections records show the violation was lifted in October.
Blumenfeld also plans to renovate an old Studebaker automobile showroom at Broad Street and Ridge Avenue, which once served as a homeless shelter, into about 36 apartments and two Stephen Starr restaurants.
But not everyone is upbeat about progress on North Broad.
Linda Richardson, executive director of the Uptown Theater, at Broad near Dauphin, said plans to renovate the theater - once a venue for popular Motown acts - have stalled and that she is negotiating with contractors.
"I think there was a spurt of energy that occurred when Rendell was the governor," she said, "but the Avenue of the Arts North has just been a dismal failure if you compare it to the south side."