Jack Shannon remembers 36th and Walnut streets. Shannon, director of economic development in the Office of the Executive Vice President, was a Penn Law School student in the ’80s, and he recalls how the area stretched dismally from 34th to 38th streets, holding mostly empty spaces and a large parking lot.
Zoom ahead several years later, and a different picture emerges. The area now teems with foot traffic and boasts shops such as the Penn Bookstore, Douglas Cosmetics and Cosí.
Yet Walnut Street isn’t the only site glowing from a recent makeover. Go further west, and you’ll discover an area humming with retail activity.
In the past four years, more than 25 new stores, including a hotel, have opened in the area. “There has been a realization that there is a marketplace here,” said Shannon. “Outside of Center City, this is the largest concentration of people in the city on a daily basis.”
As part of the West Philadelphia Initiative, Penn has invested heavily in bringing more retail amenities to the community. Whether renovating buildings, cleaning sidewalks or providing better lighting, Penn has worked hard at transforming West Philadelphia into an attractive retail corridor.
Surveys of residents and students and partnerships with neighborhood organizations like Spruce Hill Community Association helped identify many of the retail gaps.
Before the initiative, University City residents looked to Center City to fulfill their shopping needs. Business Development Marketing Manager Anthony Sorrentino said the community was even “starving” for a good supermarket. Then came the Freshgrocer, started by a local proprietor from Delaware County who was lured by Penn’s commitment to West Philadelphia.
“This has got be one of the great urban success stories [of] the initiative,” said Sorrentino. “It’s a hybrid serving locals, students, and staff desires.” Indeed, the Freshgrocer is a double-hitter in many ways—it keeps spending local and acts as a node “where the neighborhood and University come together,” said Sorrentino.
Among the new dining options, some of which include the Philly Diner and Mad 4 Mex, is Pod, which is run by high-profile restaurateur Steven Starr. “Pod is doing incredibly well,” said Sorrentino. “It’s probably the first time people are coming to the neighborhood from the suburbs and New Jersey since the heydays of the White Dog. It’s a destination restaurant.”
Even with the services now available, Sorrentino said Penn is looking to add more. Included on Penn students’ and the community’s wish list: an art-supply store, used bookstore and mid-range restaurants. Associate Vice President for Business Development Lisa Prasad said all the activity is shaping West Philadelphia into one of the city’s newest shopping destinations. Shannon agrees: “It’s not South Street. It’s not Main Street. It’s 40th Street. It’s something special.”
Originally published on January 24, 2002