Mall retailers need not apply

The Sundance movie theater under construction on 40th Street presents a huge opportunity to create a destination point for students, neighbors, young professionals, street musicians, chess players, sightseers and movie buffs, all congregating in an area that could potentially become dominated by cafes, international restaurants, antique book and furniture stores, and an electric retail mix.

The recent “40th Street Market Retail StudyÓ is a huge step in the right direction, but difficulties, blind spots and pitfalls lie ahead.

The study by the University City District and the 40th Street Community Steering Committee recommends several things, including:

  1. Create additional suitable retail space;
  2. Market the area more comprehensively as a dining, shopping, and entertainment destination;
  3. Continue to improve the aesthetics of the area.

Improving the aesthetics of the area is already underway, but we are residually challenged with objectives one and two.

The most important thing that we can do as economic development professionals is to attract a diverse retail mix to 40th Street that draws on a sense of neighborhood. Thus we should seek first and foremost local retailers rather than standard, national mall merchants. That’s because local retailers almost always have better food, music, beer, customer service and loyalty. While it may be necessary to attract national retailers as anchors for a particular corner or block, national retailers for the most part destroy our sense of community both in terms of customer service and in the sheer size of their stores.

Manayunk, South Street, the Village, Soho and Cambridge did not become destination points because of mall retailers, but because an eclectic mix of artists, students, cafes, bars, musicians, chess and checkers players, street musicians and others were attracted by cheap rents and reasonably priced food, readily available late into the night. The national retailers later saw a lucrative market and began to bid up rent prices, thus pushing out the eclectic crowd that created the “hip strips.Ó The hip moved to other areas to restart the cycle, from South Street to South Philadelphia, from the Art Museum area to Fairmount.

Finally, for 40th Street to thrive, we must develop and support leadership that is germane to this community. Without strong leadership, we will again slip into an era of mistrust between the larger institutions and the neighborhood.

The time has come to put those days behind us. The 40th Street Area Business Association and the University City District can form a unifying link to institutions, businesses and neighborhood groups to create a clear plan of action and implement it along the 40th Street corridor.

The Partnership CDC stands ready to support a unified agenda for 40th Street, but we must also avoid the pitfalls that await us.

Blane Fitzgerald Stoddart (W’87) is executive director of The Partnership CDC (community development corporation).

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Originally published on September 2, 1999