Call it a comeback of sorts — but Port Richmond’s Richmond Street could be poised for an epic return to greatness.
In a perfect world, the once-thriving commercial corridor would be returning to its heyday, rich with culture and populated by shops, eateries and businesses. But that probably is too perfect.
Just the same, Richmond Street has been undergoing some major changes — regular cleanings, the beginnings of reconstructive roadwork, tighter restrictions on abandoned properties and some new storefront openings.
For now, trash littering the landscape still trumps the population of vibrant storefronts, but these recent signs of progress also could be signs of promise for the Port Richmond community.
Richmond Street, a long-forgotten roadway crunched between I-95 and a number of architecturally interesting but abandoned buildings, has become somewhat of an eyesore over the years, with abandoned factories stifling business and commerce along the corridor.
But PennDOT construction has recently begun, and there are big plans for the future of the road. If all goes according to plan, Richmond Street will see significant improvements between Aramingo Avenue and Ann Street.
Between Cumberland and Ann, improvements will enhance Richmond Street’s aesthetic value and accommodate smoother travel.
The project will place a center turn lane on the street, as well as bike lanes and walking paths on the sides. And the iconic Route 15 trolley will return eventually, restoring a certain charm that has been missing.
The New Kensington Community Development Corp. has been working to deliver a better Richmond Street. Henry Pyatt, NKCDC’s commercial corridor manager, has been making it a point to aid the Richmond Street business community.
“I help small businesses get through the zoning process, navigate city permitting, find locations to open or expand, promote their businesses alone or in groups, and keep the commercial corridors clean,” he said.
The organization supplies a so-called corridor steward, Mariusz Tyrk, who travels the neighborhood by cargo tricycle, cleaning up the community. Neighbors might see Tyrk on the streets with his bike, which tows a brightly painted green box.
Tyrk also is fluent in both the English and Polish language, an attribute important to a Port Richmond area that is home to a large Polish-speaking population.
Tyrk’s other duties, according to Pyatt, call on him to “clean the sidewalks, remove illegal signs and distribute information about city programs or other opportunities to business owners.”
All of these services are relatively new.
“On Richmond Street, and also on Allegheny Avenue, we have just begun providing these services as part of our new Corridor Maintenance Program,” Pyatt said. ldquo;In our efforts to get acquainted with this strong business community, we have consulted with longtime business owners and begun making regular visits to businesses to explain the services we can offer. We’ve already been able to help a few businesses with funding and zoning issues.”
Pyatt believes that the thoroughfare is on the cusp of a resurgence because of the area’s public transportation, compelling architectural heritage, and a “small but dedicated group of long-term residents and business owners.”
In addition to the NKCDC’s work, the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections has begun to crack down on owners of abandoned properties. In fact, when the new initiative recently was announced, Mayor Michael Nutter hosted a news conference on Richmond Street — a symbolic move because of the area’s oft-seen broken windows and distressed properties.
State Rep. John Taylor, who wasn’t available for comment for this story, was a major force in the initiative. He sponsored the land banking bill that could enable the city to seize blighted properties, like some of those along Richmond Street.
On the business side, the prospects for commerce have brightened with the arrival of two new merchants. The owners of AFI Flowers, Tom and Vanessa Sheridan, are optimistic that the decision will be good for their business and good for Richmond Street.
Although they encountered some obstacles in their search for a location, they are happy with the outcome.
“I wrote letters in English and Polish and literally placed them outside of each of the abandoned buildings, asking if their owners were willing to sell or rent. No one got back to me,” Tom Sheridan said. “The building we’re in now used to be a furniture factory. These were offices, and the furniture was made here, too. There’s a lot of history involved. I like that sort of thing.”
The store, which opened on Jan. 2, is gearing for success.
“We think Richmond Street can be the next big thing. This area has so much potential,” Sheridan added. ldquo;It’s a bridge to the waterfront. It’s right next to the casino, but it’s always overlooked. This is a great community with good people and an amazing atmosphere. I see the potential; it’s a little gem to me.”
Tom Sheridan handles the business aspect of AFI Flowers; Vanessa Sheridan puts the arrangements together in the storefront.
“She’s the artsy one,” Tom said.
The other newly opened business, Sweets & Treats, is just a block north of the flower shop. Owners Jeff Jadezak and Wayne Bullock opened their candy store in early December and are excited to be part of the neighborhood.
The sweets store offers everyone’s childhood favorites, and the owners are open to community input and what residents would like to see on the shelves.
The shop is in a building owned for years by Jadezak’s family. In fact, he easily remembers the days when Richmond Street was bustling with business.
Although foot traffic isn’t nearly what it used to be on Richmond Street, Jadezak is starting to see it at his shop.
“We’re getting a fair amount of foot traffic. If we can get a few more new businesses, we can get it back to what it used to be,” he said.
“Oh my God, people stop in,” Bullock added. “People constantly walk in and drive past and decide to stop in.”
He and Jadezak would like to create a small-town community feel on Richmond Street.
“During the first couple weeks, I stood outside and talked to everyone who walked by. People looked at me funny, but I kept doing it,” said Bullock, who originally is from West Chester.
The business partners hope their shop becomes a place where residents can relax and hang out.
“Eventually we’d like to offer coffee and hot chocolate, and place some tables out front where people can sit and relax,” said Bullock.
“The sidewalk here is much narrower than it is on Allegheny (Avenue), but we want to get permits and put some smaller tables out,” added Jadezak.
They’re also hopeful that other positive perks will come to Richmond Street, such as new lighting, benches and community trashcans.
The tides of change are a pleasant surprise to the locals, and residents seem pleased with the recent progress. Support for the new businesses already is strong mdash; in fact, on social media sites, many locals have been calling for an all-out Richmond Street revitalization project.
On the street, residents like Peter DiCapua said his family have become regulars at Sweets & Treats. They live just west of Aramingo Avenue, he said, and they think the new businesses are a nice addition to Richmond Street.
“We’ve only been living here for two years, and we’ve continuously been told this area is going to gentrify,” DiCapua said.
He thinks Sweets & Treats is on the right track to success.
“This is a great idea for a business,” DiCapua said. “People with kids will flood this place.” ••