by Pete Mazzaccaro

Last Thursday, April 16, elected officials and neighborhood leaders gathered at Pleasant Playground at Chew Avenue and Slocum Street in Mt. Airy. The playground, a little more than a mile from Chestnut Hill’s Water Tower Recreation Center, recently received a $2.8 million makeover to its recreation center building, tennis and basketball courts. It was a project that demonstrated what can happen when neighborhood organizing and public planning come together.

It was a fitting location to announce a $100,000 grant from the Wells Fargo Foundation recently awarded to Mt. Airy, which will use the funds to spearhead a comprehensive neighborhood plan that will include nearly a dozen different organizations, including East and West Mt. Airy Neighbors, the Mt. Airy Business Improvement District and Weavers Way Co-op. That plan will look at many aspects of the neighborhood’s quality of life, including green and recreational spaces that might benefit from the sort of attention Pleasant Playground received.

The idea, said Anuj Gupta, executive director of Mt. Airy USA, is to look at the whole neighborhood and create a 10-year plan to make it a better place to live, which in turn, will benefit the region.

“Even though it’s focused on one neighborhood, this plan has strong benefits,” Gupta said. “This will make for a stronger Northwest.”

Gupta noted that Mt. Airy USA began the process of applying for the grant about a year ago. The organization had a plan that was completed in 2004, and it was clear it had become obsolete.

We realized the plan was not relevant anymore,” he said. “So much has changed. The economy has changed. The demographic profile has changed. That became evermore clear as the process began.”

The grant was a contest that was open to numerous other nonprofit organizations around the Mid Atlantic region. Mt. Airy USA passed an initial round and earned a site visit from the Wells Fargo Foundation. During that visit, Gupta said it gathered numerous stakeholders into the group that will participate in the planning process, which he thinks helped Mt. Airy USA win one of three grants that the foundation awarded.

“All who participated made it clear that it was not a Mt. Airy USA plan,” Gupta said. “It’s a Mt. Airy plan.”

Mt. Airy USA had settled on a team of four planning firms before it got the grant – the results of an RFP process it began last year. Gupta said its team – Urban Partners, RBA/Brown & Keener, Baker & Company, and White & Associates – has a lot of Mt. Airy experience with Mt. Airy, from past projects in the neighborhood to some company principals being residents. The team will begin in May on a yearlong investigative process that will include significant public input.

“The planning team is going to do a property by property assessment, which is an exterior look at buildings in Mt. Airy,” Gupta said. “They will also conduct a resident satisfaction survey. They will literally go door to door to gather opinions from residents on the current state of the neighborhoods nnd what they want to see in the future. There will also be a series of community meetings, focus group and stakeholder meetings. So it is a lot of work. It will be a year-long process.”

Gupta said that although much of its recent work has focused on Germantown Avenue, the scope of the new planning process will go beyond the business corridor, particularly in East Mt. Airy, where the needs are greater. He said, for example, that the organization wants to look closely at the nearby Chew Avenue corridor, where there are opportunities for new business and other investments.

“Germantown Avenue has already seen a lot of progress,” Gupta said. “There’s more to do, I think we’re starting to get to a point where there’s a critical mass. We’d like to see more emphasis on housing needs and housing rehabs. We’d like to really address blight in a comprehensive way.”

Gupta said the planning process also will look at green space and early-childhood education. Planners will look at access and availability of both for all residents in the neighborhood.

In the end, he said the process will provide a vital document to guide Mt. Airy’s neighborhood leaders in the future.

“It’s critical,” he said of a comprehensive plan “If you don’t have something on paper to go by, then you’re just relying on your gut. That might be accurate half the time. It’s not a way for a community organization to operate.”

For more information on Mt. Airy USA, visit The Local will announce future public meetings in the planning process when those meetings are announced.