Diane Mastrull: Awards honor businesses for storefront designs

Posted: October 23, 2012

The Tucson fringe ring clutch for sale at Fishtown's Adorn Boutique just might be a must-have. So, too, a slice of butterscotch bourbon from Magpie Artisan Pie Shop on South Street.

In Point Breeze, the American Sardine Bar, successor to what was a neighborhood scourge, is now a cozy eatery.

But it's possible that nobody would have known without going inside those commercial establishments - underscoring one undeniable small-business fact:

Curb appeal is no less important in this world than it is in residential real estate.

It's the mantra of economic-development and design experts, the thrust behind facade-improvement programs, and the motivation behind a competition recently concluded in Philadelphia.

The Citywide Storefront Challenge, which was held earlier this month for the second time since 2010, offered no prize money. But, as organizers were quick to point out, the effort should yield even more fulfilling results for the 62 contestants: customers.

A joint effort by the Philadelphia Commerce Department and the nonprofit Community Design Collaborative, the contest bestowed awards on 16 establishments (including Adorn, Magpie, and American Sardine) for storefronts illustrating its organizers' point: Good design is good business.

An additional 10 took home honorable mentions. Overall Best went to Stephen Starr's Frankford Hall, his popular beer garden in Fishtown.

Collectively, the nominees represented more than $1 million in storefront improvements. But for some, the work done was as minimal as a new coat of paint and some potted plants.

"It's the single biggest investment you can make in advertisement," said facade enthusiast Patricia Blakely, a contest juror and executive director of the Merchants Fund, a Philadelphia-based charity that issues grants to small businesses.

How a small business presents itself aesthetically should be as much a part of an owner's business plan as the products and services offered, said Robin Kohles, another juror and an architect with the Community Design Collaborative.

"What we're trying to promote is if you are going to invest, you should make thoughtful design decisions that are going to help your business," Kohles said.

For Holly Ricciardi, word of mouth on social media and elsewhere has made Magpie a sought-out destination for sweets indulgers - and even for those not into desserts. A chili pie is also on the menu.

Designed to help the hungry notice the nearly two-month-old bake shop in the neighborhood of the former Graduate Hospital is a black metal facade that won Ricciardi, a Carlisle native, the Storefront Challenge's Up Against the Wall Award.

She inspired the look, part of a renovation that cost between $75,000 and $100,000, with her idea of magpies, known for gathering things and storing them in nests. It was an appropriate parallel, Ricciardi thought, to pie crusts and the ingredients they hold. Architecture-and-design firm Fishtank PHL L.L.C. took it from there.

The result is a black metal "skin" over the existing orange brick wall that bends and folds to create a horizontal cornice separating the business from the residence above. Farther down, the skin folds out to create a canopy highlighting the existing windows and door.

Superimposed on the exterior is a logo featuring a mix of magpies and hex symbols (a nod to Ricciardi's German roots) "in the fashion of the old pie tin plates," said Louis Chang, one of Fishtank's principals.

Although it's an award-winning look in the eyes of design professionals, Ricciardi said, the facade often goes unnoticed by passersby, many of them with their heads bowed and fingers busily tapping out messages on handheld communication devices.

"People walk right by it," she said. "It's just a matter of people looking up."

Eyes up are needed, too, to catch what the Community Design Collaborative's Kohles lauded as "a beacon in the neighborhood" - the oversize sardine can suspended over the entrance to American Sardine Bar. It earned its owner, John Longacre, president of LPMG Real Estate Development Co., the Storefront Challenge's Creative DeSign Award.

Along the property's 18th Street side, a wall of long windows opens out onto the sidewalk, replacing the largely solid wall that gave cover to the trouble that used to go on inside. The former Wander Inn was "as bad a nuisance bar as exists in the city" when he bought it nearly three years ago, Longacre said.

The new look "had to send a message," he said, "and that message was, 'We're going to have big glass windows, and we're not afraid of their getting broken.' "

There hasn't been even a crack since November, when Longacre opened the corner property as the first sit-down restaurant in Point Breeze in at least 50 years, by his estimate. The tile-coated exterior wall once painted brown and beige now pops with color - mostly mustard and purple. Rusted-metal awnings match the sardine can as part of an exterior renovation Longacre said has cost him at least $55,000 (and counting) as he pursues city approvals to convert an adjacent lot into outdoor seating.

Still more transformative windows - these replacing a solid wall and a roll-up garage door - are what earned Adorn a tie with Fishtown web designer Yikes Inc. for the Green with Envy Award.

Over in University City, meanwhile, a new restaurant not only revealed itself to those who might pass by, it reached out to become part of the street scene.

A wall of accordion windows nearly a half-block long that open onto the sidewalk, enabling al fresco dining, is the centerpiece of a dramatic $130,000 renovation that transformed a drab commercial space along Baltimore Avenue into what opened in July 2011 as Saba Tedla's chic Mediterranean restaurant, Aksum.

Once-blocked transoms above those windows have been uncovered, further revealing a new identity for the space, which used to house an African clothing store and a Chinese/African grocery.

Establishing a connection with street life was a priority for Tedla, a native of Eritrea, as operator of a neighborhood restaurant - a neighborhood in which she lives.

For her efforts, she is seeing repeat customers - and she picked up the Storefront Challenge's Extreme Makeover Award.

Diane Mastrull: Storefront Stars

Bang for the Buck: Little Baby's Ice Cream

Honor the Past: Manakeesh Cafe Bakery

Protection to Perfection: Silk City Diner

Creative DeSign Award: American Sardine Bar

Up Against the Wall: Magpie Artisan Pie Shop

Green with Envy (tie): Yikes Inc., Adorn Boutique

Window Display: Bicycle Revolutions

Nightlife: Tria Wine Room

Extreme Makeover: Aksum

Corridor Catalyst: Jet Wine Bar

Corridor Catalyst Group: 52d St. Business Development Corp.

Painted Ladies Award (tie): Virgin Hair Boudoir and Reed's Coffee and Tea House

Pardon Our Appearance: Shake Shack

Overall Best: Frankford Hall

See slideshow at http://blog.cdesignc.org/.

Diane Mastrull:

Robin Kohles, of Community Design Collaborative, talks about the winners. Video at philly.com/business

Contact Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466 or dmastrull@phillynews.com, or follow @mastrud on Twitter.

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