East Falls Forward Approved as “RCO”

Despite the fact that the officers of East Falls Forward (EFF) have stressed time and again our wish for EFF to be a collaborative and proactive organization that works to help build the business corridor, we cannot account for outside factors that present the need for us to be reactive, one such factor being The Fallser and its writers. Today, we address the article in the August 2015 issue “East Falls Forward Approved as ‘RCO’.”

I, Angela Velez, offer you the full text of the email correspondence between me and Barnaby Wittels. In doing this, I hope that you will be able to read the full email in context, and I am happy to share with you my feelings at the time I wrote the letter, some of which I continue to feel today. [Note: This message, along with the email correspondence, has also been submitted for publication in The Fallser next month.]

We purchased our home at the end of February and moved in shortly thereafter. After being here a couple weeks, sleeping here, and walking around, I got a better feel for the neighborhood. Businesses that I thought were businesses turned out to be vacant storefronts. For the park I thought I would have easy access to given my home’s proximity to it, I played leap frog to get there due to traffic congestion (even when using the crosswalk). Each morning, I would awake to the sound of an angry driver laying on his/her car horn because the traffic on Ridge Avenue was not moving. I talked with neighbors and tried to accept these issues as normal, yet they continued to eat away at me.

Rather than pondering the problem but presenting no solution, I decided to ask questions and become informed. I saw an article in The Fallser welcoming the “Voice of the Community,” as the article was entitled. So, I presented my questions to Barnaby and copied another organization, East Falls Development Corporation, which, at the time, I knew to be a neighborhood player but was not quite sure how it fit in with East Falls Community Council. And that brings you to my email below (bottom of message): please read it.

I am happy to discuss anything in my email with anyone who may want to discuss it, and, rather than spinning Barnaby’s response to fit my agenda (whatever that may be), I will let his response speak for itself. What I will say is that I found the response, in general, provided me with no real answers to the overarching questions in my mind: why are things the way they are on Ridge Avenue and how can we realistically tackle neighborhood improvement?

That leads us to East Falls Forward. I would like to remind everyone that this group is intended to be a discussion forum for the community: it is not a place where I, or any of the other officers, go to push our individual agendas. The goal is neighborhood improvement. The opportunity for another collective voice to be heard presented itself and I offered to serve as the group’s president to get it up and running, which we have done, and EFF is officially a “registered community organization!”

And here we are now. I am deeply saddened by the criticism EFF has received from various parties. Perhaps I was naive to think that we could get together to discuss positive neighborhood improvements and have the support of our neighbors. On a more personal level, I am saddened that Barnaby has shared my email with someone who took the time to attempt to discredit and attack me publicly. At no point is EFF supposed to be about me individually, where I live, my profession, and my feelings on the neighborhood nor do my feelings alone control what happens with the group. But, as noted above, we cannot account for outside factors. I can control only how I respond, which I will share with you below.

First, when prompted to share my voice with respect to aspects of this neighborhood, I will be very reluctant to do so in the future. Perhaps “The Voice of the Community” was calling for only positive statements regarding the neighborhood because, in this month’s article, it is noted that the concerns/inquiries I presented in my email to Barnaby were merely “complaints.” I feel that the references to my “complaining” and the attempt to “address [my] complaints” serve to minimize and/or dismiss my concerns.

Second, my living in the area for a few months or this being my first home purchase does not make me any less of a resident of East Falls. I am here, I live here, my money is invested here, and I am now personally invested here. Again, after reading this month’s article, I am left to feel that because I am new to this neighborhood, my concerns matter less (or do not matter at all). Furthermore, whether I live here for one year, 22 months, or ten years, I am a resident of East Falls for that time and would hope that my concerns are treated with the same consideration you would want for your own concerns.

Last, it was never EFF’s position that I would be president long-term. As we discussed during our first meeting, the current officers were presented and elected so we may get the group up and running (or speed walking at least). We plan to hold elections for officers in December for anyone who may be interested. Until then, perhaps I can look forward to The Fallser’s monthly critique of EFF, me, or both. And then maybe, after December, people can criticize the group’s new president and his/her neighborhood interests, goals, and concerns . . . .

While I am president of EFF, however, I will not allow myself or EFF to be browbeaten. I will not sit quietly and allow the message to be that those who voice their concerns will be publicly shamed for their candor. We are here, we have opinions, and we want a better neighborhood for everyone (residents and visitors) to enjoy. I ask that you treat me, EFF, and our collective or individual concerns with the courtesy and respect you would give to any other neighbor (or friend if this month’s article is indicative of how you treat your neighbors). We do not have to agree, but we do have to live together.

Sincerely,
Angela

[Here is the email correspondence mentioned above.]

From: Angela Velez
Date: May 11, 2015 at 9:38:41 AM EDT
To: Barnaby Wittels
Subject: Re: Response to “The Voice of the Community”

Thank you for your response. I will be attending tonight’s meeting; I hope to meet you then.

Kind regards,
Angela

On Mon, May 4, 2015 at 5:23 PM, Barnaby Wittels wrote:

Thank you for your thoughtful e-mail. I think you are just the sort of person we need in East Falls. I hope that you will become active and make your voice heard. Please consider joining East Falls Community Council. The cost is ten dollars.

I can’t adequately answer your question about empty retail spaces. That is a concern. I can tell you that the EFDC does make efforts to attract new business and we support that effort. Two separate owners tried to make a go of a coffee shop in the space now occupied by the dentist on Midvale. As far as I know the problem has not been due to the City or any regulatory body. I agree that we need to attract more businesses. A thriving business corridor is one of the main requisites for a viable community. The others I my opinion are safe streets, good housing, and good schools. We have a long way to go on several of these fronts. As to a bike share, that is fairly new in Philadelphia to begin with and we would welcome it in East Falls.

I can’t answer your question about the day care centers. I can only address the gas stations by saying they have been here a long time and although I don’t like them either, I’m not sure absent a complete makeover of the Ridge Avenue corridor how we would be able to get rid of them. They are both highly profitable.

Traffic is an ongoing problem and one you could help address if you became active in EFCC.

Hope to see you at our next meeting which is on Monday, May 11, 2015 at 7 p.m.

Barnaby Wittels

—–Original Message—–

From: Angela Velez
To: info <info@eastfallscommunity.org>
Cc: ginasnyder
Sent: Sun, May 3, 2015 6:50 pm
Subject: Response to “The Voice of the Community”

Dear Mr. Wittels (and anyone else whom may be interested in what I have to say):

My name is Angela Velez, and I am a new resident of East Falls. I am writing to you in response to your recent article in The Fallser, entitled “The Voice of the Community” and to “voice” my concerns on a few issues about the area. Please note that I understand that I am not privy to all the plans and/or details with regard to upcoming projects, but I hope that by raising these concerns, you may be able to shed some light on certain undertakings to address my concerns.

My significant other and I moved from Fairmount and purchased our first home here in East Falls earlier this year. After living in the area for just over two months at this point, I truly feel that I made a mistake buying a home here. The people have been kind overall, but I cannot put my finger on what is going on in this neighborhood with regard to its potential growth and development, which concerns me very much. How can an area that appears to be so lovely from Kelly Drive seemingly have little to no direction for its commercial space on Ridge Avenue? Specifically, my concerns are:

  • Why are there so many empty retail spaces? Is it really that difficult to get a business license around here for a coffee shop, ice cream store, boutique clothing store, art gallery, or other business that would elevate the commercial face of the neighborhood?
  • Why are there about four daycares on the few blocks of Ridge Avenue?
  • Why is there no bike share in place? The neighborhood faces Kelly Drive, and having a bike share would encourage people to stop or at least pass through the neighborhood.
  • Why do we have two gas stations so close to one another?

Given that there is very little to do on Ridge Avenue, the traffic pattern is also alarming. We purchased our home on Calumet Street, just off of Ridge Avenue, and I find the traffic to be congested, loud (tons of beeping), and dangerous (people speed from light to light). I often worry for my safety when I am walking my dogs. Are there any plans to alleviate the congestion while also proceeding with plans to develop the area? Perhaps there is a way to re-route traffic?

I believe that a separate article in “The Fallser” referred to new residents like me as “yuppies,” which is fine. This yuppie would enjoy living in a neighborhood where her money is able to be used to support good, local businesses. If not, I feel as though I am on a 22-month plan to get out of here, which is the soonest that I believe I can sell my house without a loss. I truly want to love the neighborhood as much as I love my house, but I really need some reasons to do so.

I look forward to hearing from you and engaging in an educational discussion that works to better our neighborhood.

Warm regards,
Angela Velez

 

10 thoughts on “East Falls Forward Approved as “RCO””

  1. Congratulations on being officially an RCO.

    What saddens me is as a member of East Falls Forward I learned this information not from EFF but from The Fallser, regardless of any of the other content in the article.

    In light of the article, I look forward to what I see as a pivotal meeting of EFF on Aug 20. At that meeting, I will determine if I can continue to get behind EFF.

    After taking time to read the entire response and email chain you posted, I still cannot look beyond the entire community being criticized. Contrary to your belief, as an individual in a leadership position of a community organization, your feelings about the neighborhood matter.

    I do not want to see EFF be a sloppy missed opportunity. Hopefully, on Aug 20th, EFF can make the best of a second chance.

      1. Maybe I need to go back and watch the video again as I may have missed that announcement at the meeting. My understanding was we were trying to meet a deadline. And just submitting paperwork does not guarantee approval. I’m glad the organization is officially a RCO. But I still stand by the Fallser being the first place to publicly mention it. I went back and read the linked piece on East Falls Local and it did not give a clear announcement that EFF had been approved by the city. All of this does matter.

        1. Mike — you’re right, my post “Best of Both Worlds Better” did not specifically make an announcement that EFF was “official,” because it honestly seemed pretty obvious to me. By recognizing it as an RCO, I figured its status was a given.

          As a neighborhood blog working for free, I tend to write off the cuff and not get bogged down splitting hairs in definitions of easily-understood concepts. If you were unclear on EFF’s status, you could’ve asked here on the forum, right? So what if the Fallser announced it “first” — they also lied about EFDC’s involvement and deliberately twisted Angela’s email.

          Your choice to be “saddened” by a missed detail and to wait and see before getting involved demonstrates a big problem I see with local politics. Yeah, sit back & wonder if things are worth it, rather than pull up your sleeves and get involved.

          East Falls Forward is but a newborn organization, man — still evolving. Rather than look suspiciously down your nose & wait to pass judgment — speak up and help create the kinda organization you think East Falls needs! Start a conversation here, it’s a free public forum EFF’s providing specifically for neighbors to exchange information directly, without sloppy bloggers missing details or ersatz journalists twisting emails to create a story.

  2. As a native Philadelphian, I, like many others, have always been critical of my hometown. There is obviously much that’s good here – both in the City as a whole, and in East Falls in particular.

    However, there is also PLENTY of room for improvement. I think the tough questions that Angela has raised needed to be asked. I personally have many more of my own, and I’m sure all East Falls Forward members do, too!

    When faced with situations in our community that are disappointing, we have a few choices as to how to proceed:
    1. Just keep complaining in private, but take no action.
    2. Give up and leave.
    3. Decide to channel that disappointment into positive action.

    Bringing this fledgling organization into existence is our collective, and so far very imperfect, attempt at the third approach, which I would argue is the most courageous. Asking those tough questions also means you care enough to do so.

    I second many of Angela’s questions and concerns. My guess is that many of the problems stem from a lack of cohesive planning and past development on the basis of what was expedient at the time. That kind of attitude dominated in Philadelphia until Center City really began to “come back” in the mid 90’s. That kind of expedient development is why you see two gas stations so close together.

    In Philadelphia 2015, we now face a different situation. Many neighborhoods, admittedly most of them directly adjacent to Center City, have positively boomed in the last 10 years, capitalizing on a nationwide and even worldwide trend of migration back to central cities and away from suburbs. Neighborhoods like East Passyunk weren’t even on my radar screen 10 years ago; now almost every person under 30 in my office lives there.

    Meanwhile, from my own personal observation, the level of activity in East Falls’ commercial corridor looks pretty similar to what I saw driving through the area on a weekly basis back in 2007. This neighborhood never had the level of vacancy or total economic depression of the recent “boom” neighborhoods like Point Breeze, so we may never see a true” boom,” and that’s probably OK. We just need more basic services within walking distance. We don’t need the “wild west,” which is what I called Northern Liberties in the early /mid 2000s. But the neighborhood still feels “poised” for something like it did in 2007 — but whatever that is hasn’t happened yet.

    After living here for 6 months, I had resigned myself to the fact that developers and business owners must have just decided there wasn’t enough here to warrant interest – not enough people; not the right demographic; not the right infrastructure. Despite the joy I derived from owning an historic home in East Falls; riding through Fairmount Park on a near-daily basis with my son; and meeting friendly neighbors, the dearth of options for something so simple as walking to get a cup of coffee and a snack on a weekend really started to grate on me, making me feel like I was living in a purgatory with all of the inconveniences of city life without any of the benefits.

    What I’ve learned as I rounded out my first year in the neighborhood is that it may be more complicated than that – people HAVE been interested in setting up shop here, but for one reason or another, the “climate” hasn’t been right. What concerns me is that if that situation continues, East Falls is going to miss out on the forward progress that many other Philadelphia neighborhoods have enjoyed in recent years.

    What saddens me is how little commercial activity there is given the infrastructure that’s in place – vacant storefronts, even with a designated main street; simple streetscape improvements like sidewalk re-paving and tree planting badly needed; a beautiful storefront at our main intersection that should be a restaurant or café sits vacant, its exterior splattered with dirt and its former entry on Ridge being used as a place for some poor soul to sleep at night.

    This neighborhood deserves better, and I think it’s our collective responsibility to demand better.

    How exactly East Falls Forward will do that is up for discussion. So far, we have been working with EFDC to develop a survey to ask residents what they want to see in the commercial district. (A draft of that survey has been posted on the “new” forum.) In the future, I hope EFF liaises with existing and potential businesses and local property owners, gets involved in planning discussions, and works with our neighbor RCO in RAH.

    My personal feeling regarding the RCO process is that we sensed there was a critical mass of people in the neighborhood who wanted an open forum to discuss development issues, and to be able to have those opinions be heard. Having anonymous discussion on something like Philadelphia Speaks forum just isn’t good enough – it is unlikely to affect policy. We had to move quickly to make the RCO happen, which is why things were, and still are, rough around the edges.

    My hope for the online forum and the organization as a whole is that it remains as “open source” as possible – allowing many people to share and discuss development-related information. It is neither the responsibility nor the purview of the current (temporary, as you know) officers to lead ALL conversation on the forum!

    So if you are a member, I hope you’ll speak up on the forum! Create discussion topics! Bring your pet peeves, complaints, hopes, and dreams to the table, both online and to the August 20 meeting.

    1. Juliet,
      Thank you for taking the time to respond in such a thoughtful caring manner. Your response really is the type of tone the conversation should have. It is why I got excited about EFF being formed. And I will always be the first to admit I can be pretty over-reactionary and blunt. One thing that I think the Fallsers pieces should suggest is that East Falls Forward needs to be more in control of the conversation when it comes to EFF.

      1. Mike, your last point is a very good one — one I am definitely taking to heart. Sometimes “controlling the message” looks like a full-time job! Hopefully, as we gather steam, the work of the group will speak for itself, and that will no longer be necessary.

  3. My wife and I purchased our house on Calumet St. in February of 2013 and our sentiments were the exact same as Angela. We too quickly found ourselves second guessing our decision to settle down here. It didn’t take us long to realize that commercial development on Ridge was nonexistent and didn’t show any sign of improvement. While businesses in many other Philadelphia neighborhoods are flourishing, East Falls has remained stagnant. In the two plus years I’ve been here, the only change to Ridge between Midvale and Calumet is yet another hair salon with a horrifically tacky sign and a swing space that is nothing more than an empty room to host events. The only positive improvement to the street is Frequency Tattoo.

    The introduction of another community group with the primary purpose of aiding in the development of the commercial district is exciting. A group of proactive people got together because they weren’t happy with the status quo. East Falls has way too many great things going for it to sit on the sidelines while our neighboring communities are going through a renaissance. East Falls Forward is exactly the shot in the arm that is needed to realize our potential as a neighborhood. This is the first time since I’ve lived here that I’ve been optimistic that things are going to get done.

    That being said, here’s a few observations I think would be beneficial:

    1. When the leases for the day cares are up, do not allow them to renew. While day cares provide an invaluable service, their locations on Ridge is a waste valuable storefront space. Businesses that sells goods needs to be located in an area with high foot traffic in order to be successful – day cares do not.

    2. Relocate the Septa bus stop from it’s current location on Midvale 1/2 a block down the street to the post office. The building on the corner of Midvale has a ton of potential to be a beautiful restaurant or gallery, but no one will occupy it until the bus stop is moved. It’s a corner stone building and it needs to be utilized as such.

    3. Convince the existing businesses on Ridge to sweep up the trash and pick the weeds on the sidewalks in front of their stores. It’s not very enticing to prospective businesses when they see their neighboring properties are derelict. Ridge looks like the set of the movie I Am Legend.

    4. Relocate the basketball courts to a new location and create a space where the whole community can congregate. A dog park sounds like a phenomenal idea, but there’s plenty of other uses that would be equally valuable.

  4. Welcome, Paul, and thanks for your thoughtful comments! I encourage you to sign up for our forum and start further discussion there if you haven’t already done so!

    The issue of businesses which don’t require storefronts being located in storefronts is one that bothers me as well. It even can provide operational issues for the business — I used to chuckle at how there were signs at Bulogics’ old location stating “No, we don’t sell anything!” The architecture of their storefront was telling passersby just the opposite! Luckily they have now found a home in the old theater building up Midvale that is a much better fit for a tech company. Meanwhile, I’m desperately hoping a restaurant will move into the now vacant ground floor of the Mason’s Building to make that storefront really sing … the same thing goes for the dentist’s office on Midvale — I’m glad to see a business there, but the use is once again fighting the architecture a bit!

    I hadn’t thought about moving the bus stop — what about the possibility that the bus stop might provide customers for the business in the Mason’s Building? I could see it going both ways.

    We definitely need cleanup on Ridge. In my former neighborhood, right on the edge between Spring Garden and Fairmount, the two local CDCs did regular street cleaning. Apparently one way of getting this on Ridge would require a Business Improvement District, which does not yet exist. I’m looking into how we could get similar services here. If anyone has insights on this topic, please share them!

    The grass lawn and basketball courts at Inn Yard are underutilized and need some love. But I have seen the courts in use. I’m sure there are ways we could tie other uses in with the courts to make the overall experience more compelling for all. A little seating would go a long way, as would some actual landscaping! I would say that given our focus on commercial areas, the park would fall somewhat outside of our realm … except for the fact of its location. Its appearance and level of activity DOES impact the business district, and so I think East Falls Forward SHOULD be concerned with how it looks and operates. I hope we can find some ways to collaborate moving forward with both Friends of Inn Yard Park and the City Parks + Recreation Department.

    1. Juliet,

      Thanks for the welcome and I look forward to posting on the forum. I came up with my list of suggestions for making Ridge more desirable for prospective businesses after thinking about what my concerns would be if I was considering East Falls as a location for my business.

      You’re right about the Mason Building. It would be an amazing location for a restaurant and really would make an inviting entry to East Falls off of Kelly Drive. I’m certainly not implying I’m the voice of restaurants, but my contention is that if you polled them they would almost unanimously not want a bus stop in which people congregate at their front entrance. I don’t see how the bus stop at it’s current location would generate any additional business for a restaurant or any other business. If someone is taking the bus to patronize the hypothetical restaurant or business, the extra half block of walking wouldn’t dissuade them.

      Starting a business improvement district seems like a lot of hoops to go through just to pick some weeds and sweep some trash. It would be nice if the existing businesses took a little more pride in their street and took the initiative to keep their area looking respectable. It’s not like we’re talking about maintaining miles of highway roadsides. They each would be responsible for a few of sidewalk and a couple flower beds. If not, I’m sure there would be plenty of East Falls residents who would be willing to chip in some of their time to maintain the streets. Not just Ridge, but all of the other streets and sidewalks that are overgrown with weeds. It absolutely blows my mind that residents don’t maintain the few feet of sidewalk in front of their homes to make the neighborhood look nice, but it is what it is. That being said, if there was a grass roots group or a block captain for each street, I would be more than happy to volunteer to help maintain the cleanliness and order. Every day when I walk to and from the train down Cresson St., I wish I had a weed whacker and hedge trimmer to clean up the overgrowth.

      I absolutely think the location of the basketball courts is of significant importance to the commercial district. Basketball courts attract kids. Kids don’t buy things. A much better use for the space would be a green space destination for people who will spend money at local businesses. I think it’s absolutely essential for the community to have basketball courts, and that’s why I’d propose to relocate them to a spot off the main commercial corridor, not eliminate them.

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