Students develop ideas for neglected Kensington lots

Salina Santiago with mentors (from left) Michael Sebright, Catherine Kendig, Kelly Ball, and Jamie Moffett. She envisions a bird sanctuary.
Salina Santiago with mentors (from left) Michael Sebright, Catherine Kendig, Kelly Ball, and Jamie Moffett. She envisions a bird sanctuary. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 08, 2013

PHILADELPHIA The first time Salina Santiago saw the neglected vacant lot under the Frankford El on Kensington Avenue, she was afraid to venture too far inside.

Old black tires hid like coiled snakes in deep weeds. Addicts left calling cards of used syringes, others carelessly dumped bags of garbage.

But Santiago saw beyond the razor wire and broken glass.

The 18-year-old graduate of Frankford High School saw a sanctuary for robins, sparrows, and house finches.

She saw a place where neighbors could sit on benches and watch birds feeding, bathing, or building nests.

She saw the walls on each side of the narrow lot becoming an outdoor gallery devoted to birds. She saw an overhead canopy of cables and fabric that would make visitors feel like they were inside a giant nest.

"I love birds," Santiago said. "Having birds here would be calming and make this somewhere where people could come and think and hang out."

Fanciful though it may seem, her vision is moving off the drawing board. Santiago was one of two Philadelphia High School students whose ideas were selected as part of a competition to come up with new uses for neglected lots.

The other student - Melissa Alvarez of Science Leadership Academy - has a plan to turn a double lot just a few doors down on Kensington Avenue into a community gallery. The lot would be cleared and all neighbors - from graffiti artists to school children - would be invited to use the walls as a communal canvas.

Alvarez, 15, said when she was considering a design, she worried that anything she did with the lots would be vulnerable to vandalism, particularly graffiti.

"I figured that anything I put in that space would get tagged up by someone, so why not invite it?" she said. "If I could offer neighborhood kids these lots as a canvas for their graffiti, then maybe they wouldn't be considered pests or bad ones anymore; they'd be artists.

"And, hopefully, if I could expand my idea to not just one, but many more of these vacant lots, there could start to be a decrease in graffiti vandalism on private property," she said. "The youth of the neighborhood would have their own space to express themselves artistically without having to look over their shoulders anymore."

The competition was organized by Clean Currents, a supplier of wind-power electricity. The company, based in Silver Spring, Md., recently opened a Philadelphia office and wanted to sponsor a community project to reinforce its clean-energy message.

"I don't want to just talk about polar bears and melting ice," said Clean Currents' cofounder Gary Skulnik. "People need to see change at their front doors."

Skulnik said he "heard over and over and over again that vacant lots were a major issue in the city."

Clean Currents proposed the "Lots of Power" design competition and reached out to Kensington residents, including filmmaker Jamie Moffett. On his own, Moffett was working with neighbors to turn a vast empty lot at East Westmoreland and H Streets into "Phoenix Park."

Moffett was dubious about the idea. He had seen too many well-intentioned blightbusters who came, cleaned, and left only to see their good work come undone with time.

Clean Currents assured him that would not happen. "We don't want to walk away," Skulnik said. "We have a commitment to figure out a way to maintain this."

Over the summer, five teams of students worked with mentors - professionals in architecture, landscape design, and development - to refine ideas for two lots at 3358 and 3344-46 Kensington Ave., just north of the intersection with East Westmoreland Street.

The properties are owned by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. Clean Currents plans to lease the lots from the city and Moffett's nonprofit, Kensington Renewal, would eventually take control and work with neighbors to maintain them.

The company awarded each of the winning students a budget of $2,000 to execute her design. In addition, it is spending $5,000 on lighting and security cameras for the properties, a suggestion from Moffett.

Skulnik said he would like to hold another competition and involve more businesses and community organizations.

Santiago, of the Frankford section of Northeast Philadelphia, is eager to start working on her bird nest project.

To hone her idea, she met weekly over the summer with Michael Sebright, an architect with Evolve Build in Spring House, and Kelly Ball, an architect with Lammey & Giorgio in Haddon Township. Last week, a jury selected her project as one of the two winners.

Santiago said her mentors helped her focus on one idea. She also had thought about an herb garden or outdoor art gallery for the lot.

She hopes the bird nest sanctuary will serve as a starting point for an eventual career in architecture. Sebright said Evolve Build would donate $2,000 in labor to help build her project.

When the project is finished, Moffett said the 25,000 people who ride the Frankford El every day will be able to look down on Kensington Avenue and monitor the transformation of the eyesore lot into a bird sanctuary.

"We hope it becomes a big, beautiful billboard that change is coming to this neighborhood," Moffett said.

215-854-5659 @j_linq

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