Upper Darby mayor is pursuing an ambitious agenda to make the town cleaner, greener, and more walkable | Inga Saffron
Another Philadelphia suburb embraces its urban side, but tries to do so in a way that keeps it a haven for its diverse, working-class residents.
Upper Darby Mayor Barbarann Keffer knew that some residents wouldn’t be entirely happy with the design for an environmentally friendly community center in the Bywood neighborhood, and she was fine with that. Even though the proposed building comes packed with popular amenities, from a basketball court to a rooftop vegetable garden, it lacks one feature that is often considered sacrosanct in these parts: on-site parking. But this was Keffer’s first big project since ousting the town’s three-term Republican mayor in 2019, and she wanted it to serve as a declaration of her urbanist agenda.
So Keffer, a Harvard grad who played basketball professionally and knows a thing or two about the value of a quick defense, was ready when the parking question came up during a virtual forum in early March. She noted that the community center was just four blocks from the 69th Street transit hub, that it was an easy walk from many Upper Darby neighborhoods, and that there was plenty of curbside parking nearby — not to mention, an empty parking garage across the street.
“Upper Darby is built out, so we have to start building up,” Keffer concluded, before moving on to discuss solar panels and maker spaces.
Nobody mentioned parking again.
If you’ve always thought of Upper Darby as the town where the Philadelphia suburbs begin, the place where Market Street traffic is released from its urban straitjacket and the car is allowed to reign supreme, then you may soon have to revise your impressions. The working class Delaware County township that some jokingly call “West West Philadelphia” is playing against type.
Aspirationally, at least, Keffer’s urbanist planning goals leave Philadelphia in the dust. She believes that policies favoring pedestrians, parks and preservation, combined with greater attention to those bread-and-butter issues of cleanliness and safety, are the key to making Upper Darby a place where residents choose to stick around, rather than move up and out to tonier communities.
As suburbs go, Upper Darby is about as urban as it gets, especially the dense neighborhoods near the 69th Street terminal, a multimodal hub that is SEPTA’s second-busiest station (after City Hall in Philadelphia). But even the greener blocks of single-family homes in the Drexel Hill section are pleasantly walkable and have great transit. Other close-in Philadelphia suburbs, such as Lower Merion and Collingswood, have developed a new appreciation for their urban qualities in the last few years. Now it’s Upper Darby’s turn.
We talk a lot these days about poor, disinvested city neighborhoods that never seem to improve, and their booming counterparts — the Fishtowns and the Graduate Hospitals — that have become expensive havens for elites. But we rarely give much thought to middle-income communities such as Upper Darby that are both thriving and still affordable. The kind of improvements Keffer is considering would improve the quality of life for people who are already there.
Even during the worst of the pandemic, the sidewalks along 69th Street shopping district never emptied out and, unlike Center City, there are surprisingly few vacant storefronts. The town has long been a destination for immigrants, first the Irish, Italians and Greeks (most notably, Tina and Peter Fey), now Latinos, Koreans and South Asians. Today, a third of Upper Darby’s residents are Black, while the foreign-born population accounts for 21% of the total — almost as much as New York City, and far more than Philadelphia’s 14%. That mix has produced a downtown that offers a smorgasbord of restaurants and cultural attractions such as the Tower Theater. One big reason Upper Darby is able to maintain its diversity is that you can still buy a trim, three-bedroom rowhouse for under $200,000.
Still, Keffer, a Democrat, might not have been elected if there weren’t signs of decline. Decades of one-party control had allowed Upper Darby to drift. No one was paying attention as landlords surreptitiously carved up tiny homes into substandard apartments. No one intervened when a big planted berm was installed along Market Street next to SEPTA’s bus depot, forcing pedestrians to cut a path through the dirt to reach the platforms. An old-fashion deference to the automobile ruled.
Some voters also felt that Upper Darby’s modest rowhouse neighborhoods were being neglected by town leaders. Only a measly 5% of Upper Darby is devoted to parks, and the lack of green space is particularly acute near the commercial district. Keffer chose Bywood for the new community center partly because the area has so few public amenities.
“There was really an inequitable treatment of neighborhoods because the old guard was so used to running things in a particular way,” observed Damien Warsavage, who was recently elected to the Upper Darby school board, one of three new LGBTQ members. It was a sweet victory. As a teenager, he was forced out of Upper Darby’s high school for a time after his family became homeless. Now he owns a home a few blocks from where he grew up.
The need to reverse course and tackle long-festering problems became clear after the town completed a comprehensive plan in 2018. That report warned that the failure to address blight, trash and the lack of open space was damaging the town’s economic prospects. Keffer turned its recommendations into her campaign platform and defeated Tom Micozzie, who had followed his father into politics and the mayor’s office.
Keffer’s victory was part of the “blue wave” that swept the Philadelphia suburbs in 2019. One of Keffer’s oft-repeated phrases during the campaign was “What’s good enough for Upper Darby is no longer good enough.”
She’s not the only one eager to see Upper Darby embrace its urban side. “People want more walkable places,” said Monica Taylor, an Upper Darby resident who was elected to the Delaware County Council in that same blue wave. “It’s a reason people are going to start coming here and staying here.”
Although Keffer took office just a few months before the pandemic started, she has already managed to implement several promised changes, Bart Everts, a Philadelphia transplant and activist, told me.
She’s introduced a vigorous street-cleaning program for the 69th Street retail corridor and started sending inspectors into neighborhoods to ferret out maintenance violations. Keffer is now laying the groundwork to establish a planning commission and several historic districts. Believe it or not, Upper Darby has neither, despite being Pennsylvania’s sixth-largest municipality, a town of almost 83,000 and home to an extraordinary collection of art deco masterpieces and Underground Railroad sites.
Keffer gave me a tour recently of the 69th Street shopping area. On almost every block, she pointed out things that could be done to make walking more pleasant — sidewalks that could be widened, crosswalks that could be enlarged, asphalt lots that could be filled in with mixed-use buildings.
If she had her druthers, she told me, she would tear down Upper Darby’s iconic bridge at 69th and Market, which connects the exuberantly tiled, art deco McClatchy Building to the SEPTA station. In its place, she would build a safe, street-level crossing.
You can already hear the traditionalists howling at the thought of losing the bridge, but she’s right. Not only does the ’70s-era bridge block views of the station’s handsome, Italian Renaissance-style arches, it’s not accessible to everyone.
Keffer and others are also looking for ways to improve an enormous parking garage that SEPTA wants to build on Market Street to serve the 69th Street Street terminal. The project is currently on hold because bids came in high, a SEPTA spokesman said.
If the garage plan does get revived, it would make more sense to turn it into a mixed-use building with apartments and storefronts, said Christopher Leinberger, the former chair of George Washington University’s real estate department — and a graduate of Upper Darby High School. Increasing the downtown population would be a boon to the shopping district and help make the area feel safer at night.
Like Philadelphia’s, Upper Darby’s challenges can’t be solved with just smart planning. The same week Keffer was presenting plans for the community center, she attended another virtual forum to discuss a shooting at a funeral for a resident who had been gunned down a few days earlier.
Keffer’s plan for a new community center isn’t a cure for such violence, but it can provide Upper Darby’s young people a safe outlet for after-school and evening activities. The project just received $1 million from Gov. Tom Wolf’s office.
The community center could probably be even more pedestrian-friendly, with windows at street level, and not just at the top. But the design by BKP Architects already represents a new way of thinking about the relationship between people, buildings and streets in Upper Darby. After years of catering to the car, Upper Darby is finally on the right road.