Taking a new avenue

The walls of the East Passyunk Business Improvement District are starkly white and bare. The computer on one of the desks, an iMac with a flat-screen monitor — it’s white, too.

The place looks like a doctor’s office, which it was at one time, or perhaps a contemporary artist’s bleak interpretation of modern office space. Regardless, the lone employee who uses the office, Robert Ravelli, does not intend to keep it that way forever.

Rather, the first executive director of EPBID has a specific idea how he wants to decorate. He intends to line the walls with old pictures of the shopping corridor from its heyday decades ago. The problem, Ravelli said, is he has had difficulty tracking down any such artwork.

But he’s not giving up. It’s important to know the history, he said, "particularly as we go forward and we think about what kind of image we want to project. There is something historical there that we can grab onto."

EPBID’s board of directors hired Ravelli in July to do what various well-intended business people on East Passyunk have tried to do numerous times in the last 10 years: Revitalize business on the avenue.

"Although people down here might think that their problems are one of a kind, that’s not true," Ravelli said of the task. "The demographic trends that are affecting Passyunk Avenue are affecting urban commercial districts around the country."

Ravelli, 47, holds a master’s degree in city planning from the University of Pennsylvania. Prior to this job, Ravelli worked for the city for eight years. He was a Rendell administration appointee to the Mayor’s Office of Transportation, where he advised the mayor on transportation issues related to economic development projects.

Ravelli frequently worked with the city’s congressional delegation to get federal funding for transportation-related projects in Philadelphia. He also developed the transportation plans for the new Phillies and Eagles stadiums and for the 2000 Republican National Convention.

Before his employment with the city, Ravelli worked in Bulgaria, helping with the land privatization program after the fall of the country’s communist regime.

A Center City resident, he admits to having been largely unfamiliar with the avenue before applying for the job. What attracted him to the position, he said, was the "challenge of starting an organization from scratch."

He got his wish.

EPBID is the result of efforts by state Sen. Vince Fumo and Councilmen Frank DiCicco and Jim Kenney to revitalize the once-thriving business corridor.

The district became official after City Council approved an ordinance, introduced by DiCicco, last December. Its boundaries have been established as Passyunk Avenue from Federal to Broad streets, plus the block between Snyder Avenue and St. Agnes Medical Center. The district also is registered with the state as a nonprofit organization, which means it can raise funds for projects through grants.

But its primary source of funding will come from a 20-percent property-tax increase assessed to all businesses within the district. (When commercial property owners and merchants voted to create the BID, they knew this was part of the deal.) The six other BIDs in the city are funded similarly.

Guaranteed funding is the difference between EPBID and previous rehab efforts.

"Now there’s a corporate entity that can raise funds through governmental sources, [that is] professionally managed," Ravelli said. "It’s no longer just merchants doing what they can on a part-time basis."

The average business owner will pay an additional $280 per year under this system, said Ravelli; thus, in the first year, EPBID should collect $125,000. The city mailed tax bills to 260 commercial properties in May. Two-thirds of the money has been collected so far, Ravelli said.

As is often the problem when the city sends its real-estate tax bills, many end up at wrong addresses because of outdated city records. Ravelli said he and city officials are working to correct this problem.

Owners who continue to skirt the BID assessment could face liens on their properties. Ravelli said he would begin that process for outstanding bills at year’s end.

Meanwhile, Ravelli is left to guess at a budget. Some expenses he can factor in are his own $55,000 salary — right now he’s a one-man staff, and expects it will be that way for a while — and the cost to rent office space.

Passyunk Avenue Revitalization Inc., a for-profit arm of the nonprofit Citizens Alliance for Better Neighborhoods, owns the EPBID office on the 1500 block, as well as 15 other storefronts on the corridor.

Ravelli is faced with the same issues that have dogged merchants who have tried to implement revitalization plans on the avenue; things like the lack of evening hours among merchants and creating a gateway to the strip at Broad and Passyunk.

Most people traveling on Broad Street don’t even realize when they pass the avenue, the director said.

"Even when you turn on Passyunk … you get to that bend, you don’t even see the stores. You have no idea that when you make that bend that suddenly there are all these shops."

He intends to stay hands-off when it comes to the day-to-day operations of businesses on the avenue. However, he did note statistics that show retailers nationwide make 60-70 percent of their sales during evenings and weekends.

"So a business that is only open 9 to 5 isn’t going to get the majority of their customers," Ravelli said. "It’s just the nature of the way we live today — double-income families, nobody is home during the day, they want to go out and shop at night."

He added that he can’t force merchants to change their hours; most of the businesses on Passyunk are family operations, some with one or two employees, and it might not be feasible.

More than a year ago, the Review reported that national clothing chain The Gap was being wooed for the avenue. That deal was never made, however.

Ravelli seems open to the idea of a chain store, but said it might be difficult to attract one because the buildings on the avenue are relatively small. He added that he would be opposed to some chains, such as a pharmacy or fast-food restaurant.

Ravelli’s primary task during his first year is to prepare a marketing plan for the avenue. First he will look at current sales volume, store vacancies and the existing customer base to create baseline statistics against which Passyunk’s future successes and failures will be measured.

Ravelli predicts the marketing plan will lead to a more proactive approach to attracting shoppers and businesses.

EPBID’s short-term plans — those for the rest of this year — are modest, largely limited by budget. But the district is planning a slightly more aggressive approach to the holiday shopping season than merchants have taken in past years.

Of course the street will be garnished with Christmas decorations — wreaths already hang from lampposts. But for the weeks leading up to the holiday, Ravelli has enlisted the help of Santa Claus, who will ride on a float through several South Philly neighborhoods to distribute brochures about stores on the avenue.

It will be East Passyunk’s first attempt to divert at least some shoppers from the mall and back to the avenue.

"You have to provide a product that they can’t get elsewhere and service that they can’t get elsewhere," Ravelli said. "That is, some of the strengths of Passyunk Avenue."