There are only a scattering of trees left on the 52nd Street commercial corridor, which runs roughly from Spruce to Arch streets in West Philadelphia. Empty square plots with iron grates designed to fit a tree trunk sit empty. The few remaining trees are either recently planted and still held up by wooden supports, or old and stripped of much of their bark.
The corridor, once considered the commercial heart of West Philadelphia, retains dozens of retail shops and restaurants. The Market-Frankford Line crosses near its center unloading thousands of passengers daily, and multiple bus lines pass down 52nd Street. The corridor is graced with Malcolm X Park on its southern end as well as a number of beautiful historic buildings.
In the last few decades though, 52nd Street has suffered a number of blows to its economy, including the shutdown of the 52nd Street Station of the Market-Frankford Line for renovations, which lasted over 10 years and led to an increase in vacancy rates and business closures.
While 52nd Street, like most commercial corridors, hinges on its businesses, recent efforts to revitalize the corridor have focused on the quality of its streetscape and the physical elements that shape it. New street lights, trash cans and trees are all on the agenda.
Behind these efforts is Akeem Dixon, who was hired in late 2013 as the commercial corridor manager for 52nd Street.
“My number one goal since I got here has been to make [52nd Street] cleaner, greener and safer,” he said. “I think that’s the foundation of any place you want to shop or live.”
Dixon’s position was created by The Enterprise Center, a community development organization based in West Philadelphia, to coordinate revitalization initiatives and serve as a liaison between residents, business owners and city officials. It is paid for by the Commerce Department.
Dixon stressed the importance of making his and the city’s objectives clear to members of the community, and how constant communication and transparency are essential in a corridor that has endured years of decline and unfinished improvement projects.
52nd Street’s problems won’t be solved overnight, Dixon admitted, but improvements to some of the physical aspects of the corridor could make a real impact.
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Aiisha Herring-Miller, director of economic development zones for the Commerce Department, who has worked closely with Dixon, said that physical improvements have to come first.
“When a corridor is really dirty, who really feels comfortable shopping there?” she said. The same goes for a lack of greenery, she added. Both contribute to the perception of a corridor.
Out of a number of projects currently in the works, a tree planting initiative, is set to be the first to yield tangible results. Dixon is working with the Department of Parks & Recreation’s TreePhilly program to plant 36 trees along this corridor this spring, which will fill many of the empty plots that pockmark the sidewalk.
Planting trees in a major commercial corridor isn’t as simple as burying the seeds. In the case of 52nd Street, it has required a mix of ongoing community outreach and education, centered around the idea that a greener corridor is a better corridor.
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Where did all the trees on 52nd go in the first place? In large part, it’s as simple as old trees dying and not being re-planted. But the absence also reflects a common belief among property and business owners that trees tear up the sidewalk, block views of storefronts, and can even damage underground utilities with their roots.
Tyrone Smith, owner of the custom t-shirt shop Shirt Happens, which was located on the corridor during the early planning phases of the tree planting initiative but has since moved to a location outside of the corridor, is skeptical of street trees for economic reasons.
“Our window sells,” he said, referring to the ability of cars to see his storefront. “Putting trees in front of businesses is not a good thing.”
But Smith also sees room for compromise, adding that its all about where the tree is placed and whether it’s taken care of.
Resistance to street trees is not unique to 52nd Street. Alex Balloon, commercial corridor manager for the Tacony CDC, organized a tree planting initiative on Torresdale Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia, said a number of business owners told him that trees block storefronts, destroy the sidewalk, ruin plumbing, and eventually fall down, obstructing the street.
Balloon said he spent a lot of time educating existing owners that trees would be planted correctly and “would improve the appearance of our corridor, and invite in people to shop and invest in our community.”
“One of the trade marks of a depressed area is a lack of trees, so if we want to revitalize our community it needs to look like we are making substantial, visible change and look like a growing main street,” he said.
In addition, most of the issues business owners and resident’s concerns can be remedied by planting a tree that is a properly sized and selected for a street-side plot, according to Dana Dentice, manager of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s tree program, which has been a partner in the Parks and Recreation’s goal of increasing the city’s tree canopy.
In regards to trees lifting sidewalks, for example, Dentice wrote in an email, “The concern is real for some of the existing large trees that were not given enough growing room for their roots, or those that are not suitable for their current location or were planted too deep.”
However, she said the current tree planting and selection practices “minimize the risk of damage to the sidewalk.”
Dentice added that there are real economic benefits to trees if you look past the issue of obstructing storefronts.
“Research shows that shoppers in well-landscaped business districts are willing to pay more for parking and up to 12 percent more for goods and services and spend more time shopping,” she said, referencing a report from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
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TreePhilly works with members of the community whether it agrees with the community’s concerns or not. In fact, there is a process in place to notify, and in some cases get the consent of, people affected by the tree planting.
With Dixon’s help, TreePhilly reached out to all property owners on 52nd Street impacted by the tree plantings, including both the people who are managing the properties on-site and the owners off-side, to give them the opportunity to opt-out.
Street trees are technically public infrastructure, and it is within the city’s right to plant them on public sidwalks. But getting buy-in from the community, Smith pointed out, is key to making the investment of time and money worthwhile.
“The Parks and Rec Department has been planting trees for over 100 years, so there is a lot of institutional knowledge,” said Erica Smith, program director of TreePhilly. “If we hear from the property manager or the businesses that they are very adamantly against a tree, we usually won’t plant because we don’t want to waste our resources on a tree that’s just going to be damaged and probably removed illegally.”
The city already has a backlog of old trees to maintain, and the Department of Parks and Recreation has stated that it’s committed to encouraging members of community to take greater care of the new trees to avoid a maintenance problem in the future. This means tending to a tree, especially in the early stages of its growth.
“What we do know is that the trees that are wanted and cared for by the property owner in the first couple critical years after planting, have a higher survival rate and fewer problems as they age,” Dentice said.
Dixon did much of the outreach, going store to store and talking to people, making sure there were as few opt-outs as possible. Out of a possible 48 trees, a total of 12 will not be planted. Six of these were opt-outs. The others were cases of not being able to reach the property owner, in particular a McDonald’s fast food restaurant located on the corridor.
“There are approximately 200 businesses and vendors along the corridor; everybody’s not going to buy in,” Dixon said.
He added that he respected the wishes of anyone resistant to the trees regardless of whether they owned the property or not. “I don’t make a huge distinction between business owners and property owners — like to me, you matter.”
This approach reflects Dixon belief that if the 52nd Street Corridor is going to improve, it has to benefit the people who are already there.
“They talk about ‘build it and they will come’ — they’re already here,” he said.-30-
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