Philadelphia: More than just good cheese steaks

Philadelphia’s Girard Avenue, by Flickr user KGradinger.

Philadelphia has given us some of the world’s best cheese steaks, but the city also offers a great example of how smart growth strategies can help rebuild America’s cities.

Philadelphia’s smart growth efforts date back to 1991, when, beginning in his first term, Mayor Ed Rendell focused on revitalizing downtown. In 2001, Mayor John Street unveiled his Neighborhood Transformation Initiative that invested millions of dollars into neighborhood revitalization. And the City’s current mayor, Michael Nutter, is continuing this legacy by targeting the commercial corridors that provide goods, services and jobs to the City’s residents through the ReStore program.

These are great smart growth strategies that are revitalizing Philadelphia’s urban core and creating opportunities in underserved communities, and the efforts are beginning to pay off. For the first time in six decades, the City of Philadelphia has stopped losing population – and may be even growing. The 2010 U.S Census showed that Philadelphia’s population, which has decreased every decade since 1950, has stabilized.

A group of Smart Growth America staff recently visited the City of Brotherly Love to learn more about the ReStore program and how it’s being used to revitalize one the city’s commercial corridors. Here we share some of how Philadelphia has been working to facilitate growth through commercial corridor revitalization, which, coupled with the City’s downtown and neighborhood revitalization strategies, has helped Philadelphia to become the fifth largest city in the United States.

Our first stop was the Girard Avenue commercial corridor, focusing on assets, opportunities and the programs/policies of the City of Philadelphia being used in the area. We met with the owner of a small local business, a neighborhood developer and the corridor manager from the Girard Coalition, Inc. (a nonprofit working to redevelop the corridor). After having lunch at one of Girard Avenue’s great restaurants, we also met with one of the City’s planners and other staff dedicated to executing the City’s corridor revitalization strategies.

Here are a few takeaways from our trip that other cities can use:

  1. Invest in infrastructure improvements that make the area more attractive to potential customers/investors and increases foot traffic to local businesses. Philadelphia has invested in sidewalk and public transportation improvements and pedestrian lighting – this has helped to clean the corridor up and make it feel more safe.
  2. Invest in small business development that enables more small businesses to open and succeed on the corridor. Philadelphia is focusing on funding, including business grants and loans, business-trained corridor managers and corridor marketing.
  3. Invest in surrounding neighborhoods to build up the market that attracts and supports small businesses. Philadelphia supports affordable housing, Home Buy Now (a program that helps residents buy homes in the city) and the cleaning and greening of empty lots.

Philadelphia also showed us that successful policies are not just those that have passed through the legislative process but those that also work on the ground. Residents, businesses, developers and community-based organizations must buy into and support those policies in order to promote, use and benefit from them. Many of the people we met with have used and/or benefited from many of the City’s programs and believe that as a result Girard Avenue is moving in the right direction. Many hope to see Philadelphia build on this success, including making improvements to the zoning/permitting process, eliminating any red tape involved in accessing government grants/loans and increasing street maintenance. These actions would make it easier for businesses and developers to use City programs and make the corridor an even more attractive place to potential customers.

The Girard Avenue corridor has experienced consistent growth over the last few years, even in a tough economic climate. Over 30 businesses have opened or expanded in the past five years including a locally owned bank, a supermarket and several restaurants. Zoning variance requests in the broader Girard Avenue area (which indicate the number of property improvements taking place) increased by 68% between 2009 and 2010. More than 300 units of affordable and market-rate housing has been built and or improved in the same time period. This during a period of slow economic growth nationwide.

Other cities grappling with how to grow their urban cores should visit Philadelphia to see some great examples of smart growth strategies in action. While you’re there, you might as well pick up a cheese steak. They are some of the best!

Visit for events and other information about Girard Avenue.

For more information about the City of Philadelphia’s programs to promote growth on commercial corridor visit