Blog NKCDC Letter of support for Lehigh Avenue improvements

Gregory Waldman, River Wards District Planner
1515 Arch Street, Floor 13
Philadelphia, PA 19102

December 31, 2021

Dear Mr. Waldman,

On behalf of New Kensington CDC, please accept this letter in support of the proposed traffic calming measures and pedestrian safety measures proposed for East Lehigh Ave between Kensington Ave and Aramingo Ave. We certainly agree with the principles that streets should be made for humans instead of cars, and streets should be safer for all users at all hours. Protected intersections, curb extensions, separated bicycle lanes, improved pavement markings, and defined curb cuts, will all help make Kensington residents safer. Sidewalks also need to be improved/built, and traffic needs to be slowed. Improvements should include green water infrastructure and street trees to improve air quality and reduce summer temperatures.

What is troubling is that the Lehigh Avenue improvements are coming now, in the midst of so much new construction that is out of reach of the great majority of the neighborhood residents we serve (median family income of $29,391). This new construction includes approximately 155 newly completed residential units at Frankford and Lehigh, 400 new residential units coming to the old Woods Brothers lot, and 535 new units coming to an old scrapyard site at Somerset and Tulip. Building better bicycle infrastructure is important, but it is much more important to the new and incoming higher-income residents than it is to the longtime residents who have lived with conditions that have been unsafe for years and decades. And we would respectfully argue that a “sense of place” is a luxury that higher- income residents expect, along with new murals and colorful lighting in the underpasses adjacent to Lehigh Ave., but none of these improvements make up for the city’s failure to make headway into the violence, addiction, and homelessness that make Kensington residents’ lives unthinkable for residents of any other Philadelphia neighborhood.

Lehigh Avenue has become part of the City’s intentional strategy to contain and shelter people suffering from substance use disorder north of Lehigh. As a part of that approach, the City has inhumanely utilized the train underpasses along Lehigh at Emerald, Frankford and Kensington to house human beings. The Lehigh Avenue improvements will collide head-on with the containment strategy. While we support the Lehigh Ave. improvements, we oppose the displacement of residents as a part of any plans that are expected to primarily benefit new and more well off residents, as noted above.

We support the recommendations of Somerset Neighbors for Better Living related to the Lehigh Ave. improvements, including the following:

  • Acknowledge that Lehigh Ave was historically a redline, and commit to repairing the harms to communities of color caused by systemic racism and decades of disinvestment.
  • Ensure that construction contracts economically benefit people of color and include returning citizens. We hope that economic opportunities go beyond the City’s standard approach of “best and good faith efforts” to steer a sliver of value to minority-owned businesses – this approach has failed to result in meaningful growth for Philadelphia’s minority-owned businesses.
  • Engage with Somerset Neighbors for Better Living and other civic organizations in a sustained partnership to calm traffic, reconnect streets, improve street markings, and otherwise improve safety throughout communities of color.
  • By working closely with the Office of Homeless Services as well as local advocates you will insure there is no displacement as a part of this process, rather utilizing this process as an opportunity to co-create permanent solutions to complex problems.

Thank you for your consideration.

Dr. Bill McKinney
Executive Director