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Local planner needs votes on Pepsi website

This is how you build a neighborhood park in an age when Philadelphia no longer bothers funding such urban niceties:

Clint Randall talks about ideas for the area around 12th and Watkins Streets. Randall, an urban planner, is hoping for cash to assemble a 'pop-up park' there. (Michael Bryant / Staff)
Clint Randall talks about ideas for the area around 12th and Watkins Streets. Randall, an urban planner, is hoping for cash to assemble a 'pop-up park' there. (Michael Bryant / Staff)Read more

This is how you build a neighborhood park in an age when Philadelphia no longer bothers funding such urban niceties:

First enter a famous cola-maker's online contest to win micro-financing for good ideas. Next, start a Facebook page. Go to Twitter and blast all your friends. Provide the link to the website of said beverage company (Hint: Starts with P). And, since this is Philly, encourage everyone to vote early and vote often.

If this shamelessly promotional social-networking scheme works, then maybe, just maybe, East Passyunk will find itself with $50,000 to turn the chaotic intersection at 12th and Watkins Streets into a "pop-up park" by the end of May.

But only if you go to the website and start clicking right away on "Reclaim Concrete," says Clint Randall, a freshly minted urban planner who dreamed up the project - - with six fellow planning school graduates from the University of Pennsylvania.

As of last night, Reclaim Concrete was ranked 89 in its category. Good, but not enough. Fortunately, he said, there are eight more voting days to go.

The challenge by the famous soft-drink maker, er, Pepsi, works like a typical online popularity contest. Each month, the company accepts a thousand ideas that could improve the world from neighborhood groups and individual do-gooders.

Their proposals are listed in six categories - arts, health, neighborhoods, etc. - on the contest website, with descriptions, photos, and videos. The project that gets the most page clicks in its category at the end of the month wins.

Simple as that. No dull city meetings, no lengthy grant applications.

If Reclaim Concrete wins, Randall said, the East Passyunk Business Improvement District would receive $50,000 to transform a portion of the dreary traffic intersection where Passyunk Avenue slices 12th Street into a European-style, people-watching space outfitted with cafe tables, sailcloth umbrellas, and planters. The asphalt won't go away, but will be "retexturized" with a thick epoxy surface in a pleasant color, like green or beige.

Such pop-up parks, which can be assembled in a matter of weeks, are the rage right now. New York stunned the country - and some of its own citizens - when it began closing car lanes on Broadway and repurposing the spaces as small sitting parks for pedestrians.

Initially, some complained the Broadway plazas would gridlock all Manhattan. Now many praise the parks for their miraculous traffic-calming and civilizing effects.

Randall is asking for just a little sip of the Pepsi largesse. The company created a $20 million fund by canceling its annual television commercials for the Super Bowl this year. Pepsi normally saturates the airwaves during the event, and was famous for its entertaining, and slightly risqué, spots that featured the likes of Britney Spears.

But some whiz in marketing realized the company could leverage that $20 million many times over by creating a social-networking campaign that encouraged people to visit its website regularly. Hence, you are encouraged to vote once a day for your favorite project. Competing projects include kennels for aging K-9 dogs, prom dresses for the underprivileged, and seed money for a book on "abduction prevention."

On top of that, the cola-maker calculated that its name would be mentioned a zillion times in newspaper articles about local hopefuls. Nevertheless, a spokesman wasn't interested enough in free publicity to return a reporter's phone call last week.

Renee Gilinger, who runs the East Passyunk business district, believes Randall's plan could do for Passyunk Avenue what the street plazas have done for New York. "This is as close as Philadelphia gets to Broadway," she said Sunday, gesturing toward the imposing intersection from an outdoor table at the Artisan Boulanger Patissier.

The South Philadelphia shopping street, once the hub for a largely Italian American neighborhood, has been repopulated in recent years with a diverse array of young families. Every second person traversing the 12th Street intersection Sunday morning was either pregnant or wheeling a stroller.

Yet, even with those newcomers, East Passyunk remains the rare American place where you can go from birth to death without ever leaving the neighborhood. On the city block immediately south of the intersection, you can find christening outfits, children's shoes, bridal wear, and a funeral home, not to mention an assortment of restaurants and food purveyors.

What the dense rowhouse neighborhood does not have, Gilinger said, is sufficient public space. Randall concurred. That's one reason he and his planning buddies, who call themselves Planning Collective, decided to submit their guerrilla park idea to the cola-maker. "We hang out here, so we know," Randall explained.

It took a month to get Pepsi to accept their Reclaim Concrete proposal for its website. Now the idea just needs the votes. "It's like trying to buy a Lady Gaga ticket right after they go on sale," explained Randall. "You have to keep hitting refresh."

Now go vote again: