Out Passyunk Avenue leader previews continued revitalization

There are varied and numerous reasons why and how South Philadelphia’s East Passyunk Avenue, with its innovative chef-driven fare, has become this city’s go-to restaurant row.

Among the big names that have appeared on the avenue this decade are: Paradiso, Izumi, Fond, Will, Noord, Noir, Le Virtù, Brigantessa, Stateside, Laurel, Townsend, Stargazy, Stogie Joe’s, Birra and Palladino’s, Bing Bing Dim Sum and Plenty. These restaurants and their owners changed the block’s image from old-world, home-style Italian (not that there’s anything wrong with that; note this author’s last name) to something worldly and inclusive. There are many entities for these shifts but few would dispute that East Passyunk Avenue’s progress in the last five years has been driven by Samuel Sherman Jr., executive director of the Passyunk Avenue Revitalization Corporation (PARC).

Sherman — an urbanist who built suburban homes through his now-dismantled Sam Sherman Associates LLC, and a chairman of Mayor Nutter’s Philadelphia Historical Commission — said he is maintaining the fundamental goal with which he started his gig at PARC: financial sustainability.

“We will be close to complete financial sustainability next year,” Sherman said. “When I took over, we had a $900,000 deficit. We scaled it back. That’s very good.”

Also good is PARC’s work to keep the block clean, its beautification and greening (“lots of tree planting and landscaping”) programs and prioritization on public space, such as EPA’s fountain and triangle and the Broad Street gateway’s sculptural elements. Next up on its greening docket is redoing Columbus Square Park.

“Many of our missions have been met and maintained,” Sherman noted. “The only question we still must answer involves retail, the mix of that and restaurants. How do you keep retail interesting, vibrant and relevant? That is a struggle.”

One would be hard-pressed to find a struggle along the avenue. Perhaps the shopping end of the block isn’t quite where Sherman wants it (this could shift radically when the double-wide Scooter Store leaves the block at year’s end, opening up several parcels for what Sherman hopes will be fascinating new retail). Yet, EPA’s restaurant row is a stunning scene  — “That’s a good word for it,” Sherman said. “It’s like a giant cocktail party when the triangle is full and the restaurants let out.” — with nary a dull spot to be found. “Look at Steven Starr’s Parc,” Sherman added. “That’s his most successful restaurant and I’m sure that he would connect that with it being a scene in the way the crowds on the block operate and Rittenhouse Square across the street.” 

Now that the new, mega-successful Stargazy British pie bakery is in full swing and the recently vacated PARC-held property Chiarella’s Ristorante at 11th Street has a tentative taker (“We can announce in November when everything’s signed; it won’t be like anything else on the avenue food-wise,” Sherman hinted), there’s no vacant space to speak of on the block. Onlookers will have to wait until developer Steve Olitsky’s building goes up at 1646-1648 S. 12th St. (a restaurant on the first floor is being designed) and builder Andy Kaplan begins his epic King of Jeans site construction before the end of this year. 

Sherman and the rest of the PARC crew have curated the block so well — brought in interesting guests, chefs, investors and such — that they can hardly fit another bite. Part of that scheme stems from Sherman’s urbanist outlook, whose literal street smarts come from his global traveling. 

“I am a foodie who has traveled throughout Europe and Mexico. I want to bring depth and interest to the avenue — nothing mediocre, only what is cool and different.” 

Sherman notes that modern cities are supposed to be safe, fun, fascinating and clean. Part of what allows EPA to stay that way is that Sherman and PARC found, built and maintained relationships with great chefs and culinary entrepreneurs on the block.              Sherman and his group know how to keep things affordable for the upstart business and profitable for all — so much that one of its early adopters, Lee Styer at Fond, has become the block’s first chef-owner. 

“He’s built his future here. We want other chefs to do likewise,” Sherman said.

Sherman and PARC hold the notes or leases on a majority of EPA properties and have contractors with whom they work closely. Unlike Walnut Street and Center City property owners who have outpriced their blocks and driven away chef-driven enterprises for cash cows such as chain restaurants, Sherman and PARC work with first-time buyers to finance and fit out nearly every property. 

“Some properties such as Brigantessa wanted to outfit their own kitchen by themselves so we structured that rental differently than, say, Palladino’s, where we did their kitchen for the most part,” Sherman explained. “It’s about relationships.”

As for Sherman’s own long-term relationship — 22 years with David, a high-flying businessman — with both men always on the go, travel has become an important part of their home and business lives.

“Because we both travel extensively for our jobs, we occasionally turn work into play and research projects into vacation. It’s hard for me to relax, though — I’m studying the globe every minute that I can so to bring something interesting back to the block.”