by Diane Fiske
According to George Claflen, a Center City architect and one of the organizers of the Design Advocacy Group, Germantown is the second most historic area in the city.
Claflen noted that while William Penn first developed Philadelphia in the 17th century, Germantown – which until the middle of the 19th century included Chestnut Hill and Mount Airy in its 12 square-miles – was a thriving community that existed at the same time.
Fortunately, Claflen told the DAG group at its April meeting, help is on its way for Germantown.
The help, according to Matt Wysong, a senior planner, with the Philadelphia Planning Commission and the featured speaker at the DAG meeting, is coming in small doses – a sensible solution after a series of more dramatic renovation attempts in the past few decades from urban renewal through neighborhood organizations that showed few tangible results.
Maplewood Mall, one of the first City Planning Commission projects in Germantown, is a pocket shaped mall off the Germantown Avenue business district and the first urban mall in Philadelphia.
Wysong explained later in a telephone interview that after 40 years of existence, the Maplewood Mall in Germantown is showing signs of neglect and wear from broken brick paving to vacancies in about a quarter of its small village-like stores.
He said the “help” is the result of years of community meetings and festivals hosted by the City Planning Department to get the input of Germantown residents who were asked what was needed to improve the mall. Many of the past projects didn’t include community input.
The mall, a curvy small closed street opens like a dogleg between Germantown Avenue and Greene Street. Originally, it was opened in the 1970s when Frank Rizzo was mayor. Maplewood Mall was a brick paved quiet area where automobile traffic wasn’t allowed.
Students at nearby schools, like Germantown Friends or Greene Street Friends, and neighborhood shoppers could stop and have snacks or go to the cheese or nutrition shops that were opened at the time. Today, only Maplewood Nutrition and Dietary Food Shop remains open from the mall’s beginning.
Only a half block from busy Germantown Avenue, the mall seems secluded and cannot be seen from the busy business artery. This was a good thing for people seeking to get away from traffic and noise. It became a bad thing, however, when its seclusion led to crime and even a murder in 1994. The mall is no longer closed to automobile traffic even though its configuration means there is no direct access to Germantown Avenue or Greene Street.
According to Wysong, a $3.3 million Commerce Department capital fund grant will be managed by the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department.
The Funding will finance construction beginning in 2017 on an improved mall.
“The new mall will include public spaces where people can congregate and add to a community feeling,” Wysong said “A first step will be to remove the brick paving and, install a kind of asphalt that allows rain to seep through preventing the flooding prevalent in many parts of Germantown. Using this absorbent material was necessary to obtain Streets Department help. “
Emaleigh Doley, a United Germantown Community Development Corporation organizer said on a walking tour through the mall it was important to introduce the improvements “in small steps” and have neighborhood support.
She said about a quarter of the two story Victorian row buildings in the mall are vacant but that this figure was “deceptive” as many of buildings have residents living on the second floor. The stores are sometimes open during “odd hours,” while some are still very vibrant.
In the mall, there are about a dozen successful businesses. She said these included a health and nutrition store, a café, two hair stylists, a children’s book store and a furniture repair workshop as well as a budding radio station.
She said she was optimistic about Germantown and feels it should not be judged by some depressed areas:
“Germantown is a mix of blocks with houses that are as historic and as well preserved as anything you can see in Chestnut Hill and decrepit ones that are about to fall down,” she said.