North Broad was once beautiful. In its heyday, it was a vibrant corridor that welcomed visitors from the north and beckoned to Philadelphians from the south. That was more than a century ago. Today, trash litters the sidewalks next to abandoned warehouses. Vacant lots gather more debris and become permanent homes for abandoned cars. These are the views one has from the corner of North Broad and Lehigh, with City Hall looming in the background on what can feel like a seemingly endless road.
But change is afoot on North Broad. Crews can be found cleaning up the sidewalks on a daily basis. Residential towers are going up floor by floor and once decayed structures are being restored. In another five years, driving, walking, and biking up and down North Broad may be an entirely different experience, if one community group has anything to do with it.
If there’s any section of Philly that tells the quintessential boom-and-bust saga, it’s North Broad. Historically, the 4-mile corridor running from the north end of City Hall to Germantown Avenue was a popular place for so-called “new money” Philadelphians who moved there after striking rich during the Industrial era. Wealthy men like William Warren Gibbs built opulent and beautiful mansions up and down the street in a grand manner that some interpreted as a sort of middle finger the “old money” homes of Rittenhouse Square. Indeed, North Broad earned the moniker “Workshop of the World,” the Victorian version of today’s Silicon Valley.
Then: Bust. In the years following World War II, Philadelphia’s population declined as manufacturers needed fewer employees and moved their headquarters to the suburbs. “A lot of areas in the city were affected equally, but North Broad probably experienced the worst of it because manufacturing declined significantly,” John Mondlack, the city’s senior director of real estate development, explained on a tour of the corridor last May.
Unlike its sister avenue to the south, North Broad never fully recovered post-Industrial era. South Broad boasts cultural institutions, new retail and restaurants, and luxury condo buildings that have helped shape it into the Avenue of the Arts it is today. According to a recent PlanPhilly article, that business boom was supposed to spread up to North Broad, until “irreconcilable differences” and “board-level revolt” within the Avenue of the Arts organization created a rift between the two streets.
Enter: North Broad Renaissance. The year-old non-profit organization is embarking on an ambitious plan to revitalize the corridor by bringing jobs, retail, and residents back to North Broad. “To have an opportunity to help develop the same community I grew up in? It was a no brainer,” says Shalimar Thomas, the non-profit’s enthusiastic executive director.
In 2015, when Thomas joined the non-profit North Broad Renaissance, she was handed responsibility of a four-mile corridor that had a 14 percent vacancy rate and had experienced 4,000 crimes that year alone. It was clear to the Temple grad that North Broad was still very much deeply divided from Center City, not just by City Hall.
Thomas is the first to admit that not too much has changed in the last year since the non-profit launched. “We first needed to get a telephone number,” she quips. “But the first year was pretty much getting our foundation and getting off the stage, and then developing a plan so that we weren’t just doing this on a whim.”
That involved Thomas, her assistant Imani Glenn—that’s the whole North Broad Renaissance team—volunteers, and Temple students actually canvassing within community in order to find out exactly what residents and business owners wanted to see in the North Broad’s future. From on-the-ground market research and community engagement, Thomas created a five-year strategic plan for the street and released it this past June.
The first step: Cleaning the corridor, which consists of more than 30 intersections. The non-profit issued an RFP and eventually hired TWB Cleaners to clean up trash and debris along the street Monday through Saturday, as well as power-wash the sidewalks twice a month.
“We can see a difference when they’re out there,” Thomas says. “But what I’ve also noticed is that when they’re done at 2:30 p.m., if I go down at 3, trash has already accumulated.”
Another major component of the five-year strategic plan: More parks. The next year will involve more “greening” of public spaces up and down North Broad. That ranges from small projects like adding about 135 planters and 300 tree pits by 2020 to bigger tasks like turning vacant lots into community parks.
Thomas points to a triangular patch of grass near the corner of North Broad and Lehigh Avenue as an intersection that’s in dire need of attention. It’s adjacent to the now defunct Horace Trumbauer-designed North Broad Street station that once served as an ornate backdrop to the Baker Bowl.
Today, the lot is frequented by the homeless population. Already, current efforts to “green” the space have fallen short: A recent visit to the lot revealed that new planters had turned into glorified trash cans.
“It’s a mess,” says Thomas. “But it’s such a great space and there’s so much you can do with it. With visible improvement, right there on Broad, it could be such a great community hub.”
She’s been working with the community and North Philly grassroots organization Urban Creators to come up with plans to transform the neglected landscape into something special. Ideas range from murals to a movie screen, but Thomas knows it could take awhile to get it off the ground.
“That’s the biggest challenge with implementing things: Getting through the approval process, especially with a land owner who’s not always local,” she says. “But once that’s done, we’re moving on it.”
The tail-end years of the non-profit’s strategic plan will turn from cleaning and greening to improving safety along North Broad and economic growth, something Thomas has experience with as the former executive director of the region’s African American Chamber of Commerce.
In some cases, Thomas won’t be starting from scratch in that arena. Currently, there are nearly 1,500 businesses along the corridor, many of them in the hospital and education realm.
Development is rampant, too, especially around Temple’s campus and near the gateway to North Broad. Construction is well underway at Hanover North Broad, while the Divine Lorraine restoration will bring multiple restaurants to its ground floor and residents to its 100-plus apartments starting in January. Plans are in the works to return the Metropolitan Opera House to a concert venue in the future, too.
“In many ways, North Broad is the whole in the donut,” says Mondlak, whose Commerce department provided the non-profit with $350,000. “Temple is gorgeous, and we still have tremendous development in Franciscville and Brewerytown. North Broad has become little gap in the fabric that so developers see that it makes complete sense to fill it in.”
Still, $375,000 (plus $100,000 from stakeholders) won’t go very far along North Broad, says Thomas. “It’s going to cost money to do all of these services right now. It’s going to cost money to incentive businesses to come to North Broad.”
The total estimated cost to implement the five-year plan is $1.75 million, a chunk of which Thomas hopes to garner with annual end-of-the-year fundraising events. The organization’s first-ever gala takes place on Thursday, December 15, during which the organization’s State of North Broad report will be released, highlighting how far the avenue’s come—and just how far it has to go.
But that’s not stopping Thomas. “I keep saying, ‘Let’s not think normal,’” she says. “Let’s think broad. Let’s think innovative and as crazy as we can.”
Photos by Melissa Romero