Smith first introduced the plan during a zoning meeting earlier this month, as West Philly Local reported. The building would reportedly be about 27,000 square feet, cost about $6 million and offer services that would help get entrepreneurs’ businesses off the ground.
Smith, who is also a partner at Center City’s Pipeline coworking space and senior principal of Little Giant Creative, told Technical.ly he has an emotional relationship with the 52nd Street corridor. He grew up commuting to and from Cedarbrook for school via the nearby El station, and in those trips saw structural inequality.
Currently, most resources for entrepreneurs are located in Center City or within the city’s various higher ed institutions. The proposed hub would bring some resources to West Philly, in a neighborhood close to institutions such as Drexel University and University of Pennsylvania which have huge endowments and ample resources for those in their students and faculty, but not often the surrounding community, Smith said.
The city has been majority Black since Smith was a kid, but its business economy has never reflected that, he said. Part of his vision is ending the need to go to Center City for business services and bringing contemporary business ideas to the hub.
“52nd Street has been our Main Street for years,” Smith said of the predominantly Black community. “It needs to be pulled into the 21st century. We need a vision from 52nd and Arch. That should be Black America’s Main Street.”
Smith & Roller — behind projects like J Centrel mixed-use development in Harrowgate and IF Lab community space in Kensington — is working on the proposed hub with Guy Laren of Constellar Corporation, based in West Philly’s Spruce Hill. Laren told Technical.ly in an email that about four mouths ago, pre-COVID-19, the timeline for the project would have been easier to predict.
“In a more normal world we would expect to have zoning approved before end of summer and building plans submitted for approvals by early fall,” he said. Now, if plans are approved, he expects construction to be completed by the end of 2021.
He and Smith have discussed a partnership with the Women’s Opportunity Resource Center (WORC) to become a tenant, helping women entrepreneurs with financial grants and other assistance. The team is talking, too, with The Enterprise Center, the small biz development org based at 45th and Market streets that coordinated a fund for local businesses affected by looting at the end of May, about getting its programs connected to local businesspeople. They’re also open to talking with any org that offers technical, financial or other assistance for minority or lower-income entrepreneurs.
The building’s plan currently includes a coffee shop or congregating place on the first floor, along with space for the WORC. Upstairs will have space for entrepreneurs and specific leases with other entities that might be collaborative with the other tenants, like attorneys, accountants or consultants, Laren said.
Laren said he hopes the project “serves as a model for ways real estate can be part of the growth of less advantaged business districts in our city and in other cities.”
“The access to money and access to other entrepreneurs and to administrative support will hopefully lead to the rebirth of 52nd Street and later to other similar commercial corridors,” he said.
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