A brighter future for the American Street corridor

The Amer­ic­an Street Em­power­ment Zone of­fers grants to busi­nesses that are stim­u­lat­ing the loc­al eco­nomy around the Amer­ic­an Street cor­ridor.

Amer­ic­an Street in Kens­ing­ton (pic­tured) is filled with former in­dus­tri­al sites, some of which are be­ing de­veloped for new busi­nesses and hous­ing. SAM NE­W­HOUSE / STAR PHOTO

A neigh­bor­hood man­ager for a 20-year-old fed­er­al pro­gram is seek­ing to spread aware­ness about the $1.2 mil­lion the pro­gram is dis­burs­ing an­nu­ally to loc­al busi­nesses.

“It’s in­ter­est­ing to see that this Em­power­ment Zone has been around for so long, but most people don’t know that it ex­ists,” said Laura Ben­shoff, who works out of the Phil­adelphia De­part­ment of Com­merce as neigh­bor­hood man­ager for the Amer­ic­an Street Em­power­ment Zone. 

The Em­power­ment Zone pro­gram was launched in 1994 by the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion to re­vital­ize post-in­dus­tri­al areas, and $79 mil­lion was awar­ded to Phil­adelphia, which was split between three Em­power­ment Zones – in West Phil­adelphia, North Phil­adelphia, and along the Amer­ic­an Street cor­ridor.

The Amer­ic­an Street Em­power­ment Zone bound­ar­ies are Gir­ard Av­en­ue to the south, 6th Street to the west, over Dauph­in Street, and up 4th Street, to the north by Le­high Av­en­ue, and to the east by Kens­ing­ton Av­en­ue down to Front Street, along Nor­ris Street and down Frank­ford Av­en­ue.

In re­cent months, Ben­shoff said that $550,000 of the Em­power­ment Zone’s $1.2 mil­lion an­nu­al budget was awar­ded as grants for busi­nesses in the area that are hir­ing loc­ally. 

One was Veyko, a me­tal­lurgy com­pany that cre­ated the unique benches at the 8th Street sta­tion of the Mar­ket-Frank­ford Line. Veyko open­ing a new work­shop in the area of the Em­power­ment Zone, Ben­shoff said. The com­pany did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

An­oth­er grant re­cip­i­ent was loc­al de­veloper Paul Mai­ello, for his work at 310 Mas­ter St., which has been de­veloped in­to a bean-roast­ing fa­cil­ity for Re­an­im­at­or Cof­fee and an of­fice for a tech com­pany, with a third busi­ness ten­ant ex­pec­ted soon. Mai­ello did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

The third grant re­cip­i­ent was Fin­anta, a fin­an­cial edu­ca­tion and lend­ing ser­vice based at Ox­ford and North 2nd streets. Fin­anta Pres­id­ent Lu­is Mora did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

These re­cip­i­ents join past re­cip­i­ent Chaes Food, loc­ated at North Amer­ic­an and Dauph­in Streets. Chaes moved to its cur­rent, lar­ger loc­a­tion in 2007 with fin­an­cial sup­port from the Em­power­ment Zone. 

“The Em­power­ment Zone is unique. It’s loc­ated between North­ern Liber­ties and Fishtown, where we’ve seen tre­mend­ous de­vel­op­ment. It’s the next area to be de­veloped in the com­munity,” said Maria Gonza­lez, chair of the Em­power­ment Zone’s Com­munity Trust Board since 2005 and pres­id­ent of the His­pan­ic As­so­ci­ation of Con­tract­ors and En­ter­prises (HACE).

“I’ve lived here for 17 years, so I can hon­estly tell you that I’ve seen a marked im­prove­ment of the phys­ic­al con­di­tions of the neigh­bor­hood,” she con­tin­ued.

The Em­power­ment Zone of­fers funds ex­clus­ively with­in that area to loc­al busi­nesses, and also can of­fer fund­ing to activ­it­ies such as tax pre­par­a­tion and job train­ing. But the biggest growth in the neigh­bor­hood seems likely to be in the hous­ing mar­ket.

The planned Ox­ford Mills pro­ject by D3 De­vel­op­ment at Ox­ford and Front streets will in­clude 114 units, with lower rents offered to teach­ers. D3 De­vel­op­ment is also be­hind a pro­ject to build 10 row-homes at 120 W. Ox­ford St., across the street from Ox­ford Mills.

The planned Liberty Square pro­ject by Black­stone De­vel­op­ment will bring 247 units to Ger­man­town Av­en­ue and Thompson Street. Nearby, Soko Lofts by the Canus Cor­por­a­tion is ex­pec­ted to bring an­oth­er 311 apart­ments to 2nd and Thompson streets. 

“That mo­mentum is something people are very ex­cited about,” Ben­shoff said of the hous­ing in de­vel­op­ment for the area. “I don’t think that clashes with what we’re try­ing to do. There are ex­ist­ing in­dus­tri­al act­ors in the area that we don’t want to force out. But they can co-ex­ist.”

The Amer­ic­an Street Em­power­ment Zone area falls with­in the City Plan­ning Com­mis­sion’s (CPC) Lower North Dis­trict, which stretches from the Schuylkill River to the east­ern edge of the Em­power­ment Zone and is cur­rently be­ing re-dis­tric­ted so that zon­ing matches the cur­rent uses of the land. But no one type of use will push out any oth­er, said city plan­ner Dav­id Fecteau.

“If you’re look­ing at the gen­er­al Amer­ic­an Street Em­power­ment Zone, there’s room for just about any­thing we could ever want,” Fecteau said. “The city does have a policy to pre­serve some amount of in­dustry with­in the Amer­ic­an Street cor­ridor; it’s de­bat­able how much and how far … There’s some ex­ist­ing in­dus­tri­al uses. They do fit in, and we don’t want them to leave.”

As hous­ing de­vel­op­ments ramp up, the Em­power­ment Zone will con­tin­ue of­fer­ing as­sist­ance to busi­nesses. The Em­power­ment Zone also of­fers smal­ler grants to busi­nesses, such as $5,000 grants for beau­ti­fic­a­tion, an “emer­gency grant” for non-profits fa­cing a fund­ing crisis, and a store­front im­prove­ment grant, which can provide up to $8,000 in funds to match in­vest­ments by busi­ness-own­ers made in im­prov­ing their busi­ness’ ex­ter­i­or, or up to $12,000 for busi­nesses on a corner or across mul­tiple store­fronts.

As Ben­shoff works with pro­gram man­ager Aiisha Her­ring-Miller at the De­part­ment of Com­merce, and Gonza­lez, fu­ture pri­or­it­ies for the Zone’s $1.2 mil­lion yearly budget will be de­term­ined by the needs of the com­munity.

ldquo;The fo­cus of the fund­ing that we provide is in eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment,” Gonza­lez said. “Res­id­ents sup­port activ­it­ies that really sup­port jobs for people in the com­munit­ies, or provide an eco­nom­ic be­ne­fit that puts money in people’s pock­ets.”

For more in­form­a­tion about the Amer­ic­an Street Em­power­ment Zone, con­tact Laura Ben­shoff at laura.ben­shoff@phila.gov, or vis­it phila.gov/com­merce. ull;•

You can reach at snewhouse@bsmphilly.com.

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