Craig Totaro, Creating a Campus for Arts and Entertainment

by Linda Dottor — March 2nd, 2015   |   Clients


What do Brazilian music, weddings, piano lessons, arts festivals, and Zumba classes have in common? They all take place at the Twentieth Century Club in the heart of Lansdowne.

Located on a leafy section of Lansdowne Avenue, the Twentieth Century Club was originally built in 1911 as “a center of thought and action among women.” The Borough of Lansdowne acquired the club in 1979 and the handsome, cream-colored Tudor Revival building has served as a community hub for arts programming and special events ever since.

In 2007, a house on a half-acre of land adjacent to the Twentieth Century Club went up for sale. For Lansdowne Borough, purchasing the property represented a rare opportunity to grow a proven community amenity within densely-developed Lansdowne.

One of the leaders in buying the 20 Lansdowne Court was Craig Totaro, Lansdowne’s Borough Manager and a board member of the Lansdowne Economic Development Corporation (LEDC).

“The borough purchased the building because it was next to an existing building that we already owned, and it really filled out a more sensible campus area. Then we were like, ‘So what do we do now with that?’ It was kind of a backwards thing.”

The borough needed a plan to make the most of the newly-combined properties. Craig first heard about the Community Design Collaborative while working at The Reinvestment Fund, and thought that it was a perfect fit for developing a conceptual master plan for the expanded Twentieth Century Club property. So the Borough applied for a design grant from the Collaborative.

A Chance for People to Be Heard

From the very beginning, Craig was impressed with the Collaborative’s work, especially when it came to interacting with the community.

“I think that the community is always very interested and appreciative of being involved. It’s always a big deal for people to be heard…The Collaborative addressed the community’s input and memorialized it into the document.”

The conceptual design by the Collaborative team focused on site improvements and the reuse of the newly-acquired house and an outbuilding. The plan adds much-needed parking to the site, with porous pavers and plantings to manage stormwater, and relocates the formal lawn and pairs it with a teaching garden and a meadow.

The house, vacant for some time but found to be in remarkably sound condition, will be reconfigured inside to provide new meeting spaces and offices for the Twentieth Century Club. An elevator will be added for accessibility.

“I was amazed about how professional the report and the process were, especially considering it is only conceptual design,” says Craig. “The sketches and cost estimate are just fantastic. I was surprised it was so thorough and detailed.”

Not Just a Crazy Idea

Not content to let the project sit on a shelf, Craig began applying for grants, referencing the report’s valuable background information, renderings, and even using parts word-for-word in applications. It paid off.

“We used it to write a grant and an economic impact study for transforming what is now a community center into an arts and entertainment campus, really raising the profile of it. The report helped us secure a $1 million grant to fund the work,” says Craig. “It allowed me to talk about the feasibility, fiscally and engineering-wise too. With the knowledge of the report in hand it wasn’t just a crazy idea anymore.”

With this grant money, Lansdowne recently sent out a Request for Proposals for the completion of the project, and he hopes that the physical work can start by next spring. Though he knows that construction will pose challenges, Craig is excited about how upcoming work goes beyond basic systems repairs.

“It’s been fun exploring the design work that will turn into something that is very tangible and visible, not just something like a new boiler. And that’s what we’ve had to do over the last couple of decades, new boilers and air conditioning units and heating. Now we get to do the fun stuff.”

Erica Sollberger: Many ways to get involved

by chrism — November 18th, 2014   |   Clients, Volunteers

By Andrew Halt


Erica Sollberger, sitting in the beautiful and newly renovated Twentieth Century Club, laughs when asked about what she does as director of Parks and Recreation for the Borough of Lansdowne. “Sorry I’m laughing, because it’s like everything! Even this morning, I’m still itching from cutting shrubs over at the library.”

Erica assures us that her job is usually not this hands-on, and that most of what she does consists of managing the borough parks, which range from over three acres to little pocket parks. She’s also responsible for events at the 20th Century Club, which is a community center that holds everything from weddings to Zumba classes to Arts and Crafts festivals. Part of her job in managing the parks is making improvements, which is how she first started working with the Community Design Collaborative.

“We Don’t have to Settle for a Port-A-Potty Anymore”

Hoffman Park is the largest and most used park in Lansdowne. When improvements were needed to the park’s Mid-Century Modern pavilions, Lansdowne Parks and Recreation and the local Boys and Girls Club teamed up and enlisted the help of the Collaborative.
Both the organizations and the community are very pleased with the final design. Erica loves how, “It helped them to think outside of their box and look to the outside community and say, ‘Oh look, we don’t have to settle for a Port-A-Potty anymore. We can really think bigger.’ I think it’s a really great part of the process.”


Now, just a year and a half after the Collaborative designs were completed, Erica and her team have received a Department of Conservation and Natural Resources grant, along with matching funds from the Lansdowne borough. They were able to put out a Request-for-Proposals, choose a consultant, and are currently in the process of conducting group site visits. With the help of their Collaborative road map, Erica and her team are well on their way to revitalizing Hoffman Park and achieving their goals for the space.

A Good Answer for Bainbridge Green

While coordinating this project, Erica, a registered landscape architect, wanted to get even more involved. “Working with the Collaborative volunteers, I was like ‘This is fantastic, I should do this. I should give back.’ After the Hoffman Park project had finished I knew they were looking for another landscape architect for Bainbridge Green, so I decided to throw my hat in the ring.”

As the lead volunteer for the Bainbridge Green project team, Erica worked with Friends of Bainbridge Green and the South Street Headhouse Square Special Services District on a design to add more green space and gathering places for people along Bainbridge Street between 3rd and 5th Street.

Erica enjoyed the challenge of “coordinating all of the desires of the community… people for parking and for no parking… people for seating and those against it.” She notes, “It’s about dealing with competing interests… So often it’s easy to end up with a mediocre answer because you want to make everybody happy. We tried to come up with a good answer.”

Fresh Eyes on Spring Gardens

After finishing up Bainbridge Green with a presentation to the community at a local bar, Erica switched roles again. She’s a member of the steering committee for The Spring Gardens, a community garden in Fairmount. When debates began among gardeners about the future of the space, Erica knew that the Collaborative was the perfect organization to help.

“We have some construction materials that have been amassed over time, like Belgian blocks and metal fountains, but the question is how we use them and what is appropriate for our garden. We haven’t been able to agree… having someone with a fresh eye take a look, someone who hasn’t seen the garden every day for the last ten years, and give us advice is going to be super helpful.”

Erica has now been an implementer, volunteer, and client of the Collaborative. What really stands out to her is how the community is involved in the design process and how smart design helps them think differently about places they see every day.

“Their projects are not just community at the beginning and community at the end, there’s community in the middle.”


Making a Start at Reviving Two Parks  

by Linda Dottor — June 2nd, 2014   |   Clients, Open Space, Urban Energy

Most of our pro bono park plans get their start through local efforts to unleash the green and make room for good things to happen. Here are tales of two parks—Gold Star Park and Titan Park— that are moving forward thanks to the muscle (and heart) of their communities. As an added bonus—some of our volunteers lent a hand.

gold star park depaving_tom haliwell

A Gold Star for Tom Halliwell
In April, volunteer Tom Halliwell hosted a bachelor “depaving” party for Gold Star Park. His bachelors chopped out a big swath of asphalt to establish the communal lawn recommended in our pro bono conceptual plan for the park in 2011.

Tom is documenting the equipment, costs, and do’s-and-don’t’s of citizen depaving to help other communities take on similar projects.

Loving Titan Park
Earlier this year, the Collaborative completed a Do-It-Yourself master plan to resurrect this pocket park in South Philadelphia. Our work helped the Titan Park’s supporters take the next step—installing planters and turning the circle of concrete at the center of the park into a planting bed. They reclaimed the neglected park during Love Your Park, getting it ready for use in time for the summer.

Myles Goodman, director of the Friends of Titan Park, writes, “Our Love Your Park day was a huge success. We had almost 30 people show up, and we got more done than I ever imagined. New Collaborative volunteer Doug Maisey joined Titan for their work day. Myles writes, “Thanks for sending us Doug Maisey. He was a huge help. Very professional, worked hard, stayed late, and contributed some great ideas.”


Local Heroes: Remembering Paul vanMeter and Pastor Martha Lang

by Linda Dottor — February 18th, 2014   |   At the Collaborative, Clients

It takes a special kind of person to change a community—imaginative enough to see a different future, tenacious enough to make it happen, and, occasionally, bold enough to stir things up.

Recently, Philadelphia lost two such local heroes: Paul vanMeter, a Callowhill artist and unflagging champion for the development of the City Branch portion of the Rail Park, and Pastor Martha Lang, a pastor who turned a derelict vacant lot in East Poplar into Mt. Tabor Cyber Village Senior Housing.

The Collaborative and many of our volunteers had the honor of working with Paul vanMeter in 2012 and Reverend Lang in 2005. Given the nature of their projects and their leadership, our relationships with them lived well beyond our initial design work together. Their impact will live on too.

Paul leads the way through the City Branch on a tour. Image: JJ Tiziou

Paul  vanMeter leads the way through the City Branch on a tour. Image: JJ Tiziou

Richard Roark of OLIN worked with Paul vanMeter on a conceptual master plan for the City Branch and shares these thoughts:

“I can’t tell you how shocked we were to hear of the passing of Paul.  He was a well of history and imagination.  I don’t think I ever encountered anyone more knowledgeable about the rail industry or the ecologic complexity of this lost world corridor.  As a protégé of Oehme van Sweden it was clear his knowledge of plant communities was extensive, to say the least.  He was a fascinating individual, to me, because he was willing to make creative leaps and yet was equally committed to having an almost iron clad grasp of history and precedent. How many of us could claim to be so creatively rigorous?

“I will miss hearing from him and the feeling is deeply shared among the members of our Community Design Collaborative team.  I know we will all continue to be inspired by his ‘Ruderal’ dialogues; it will bring us to better places.”

Reverends Mary Moore and Martha Lang in the lobby of Mt. Tabor Cyber Village Senior Housing.

Pastors Mary Moore and Martha Lang in the lobby of Mt. Tabor Cyber Village Senior Housing.

Dick Winston of bwa architecture + planning worked with Pastor Lang on a preliminary design for Mt. Tabor Cyber Village Senior Housing.  She then asked him to join the team that designed, funded, and built this affordable apartment complex. He shares this remembrance:

“Reverend Martha Lang was a teller of stories.  Marvelous, long, inspirational stories.  Once she told me, and I am sure she told many others, how she came to her calling while still a child in Alabama and how she held fast to that course for her entire life.

“She was a spiritual leader. She became the pastor of her own tiny flock as a young woman and nurtured Mt. Tabor AME Church’s growth for thirty-one years.  She and her husband, Brother Larry Lang, founded the Christian Training Institute, which became, over the years, a region-wide resource, and she rose to leadership roles and prominence nationally in the AME Church.

“Reverend Lang was visionary.  With Reverend Moore, her close collaborator and friend, she imagined a future for the Mt. Tabor neighborhood, now well on its the way to being realized: a long road to acquiring the church property and making it the heart of the community; creating food, education and economic development programs; strengthening the neighborhood; building Cyber Village to provide affordable housing for seniors in their own community; planning a neighborhood garden.  As Collaborative volunteers, it was our privilege to get to know Reverend Lang over the last several years, while working on Cyber Village and, more recently, the community garden.

“Finally, she was a lover of life and of people.  She seemed to find joy in everything she did and took pleasure in those around her.  Her positive outlook was infectious.  In her presence one could not help but feel as she did.  We all achieved things because she believed we could achieve them. Her faith was absolute; her belief in her vision for her flock and community was unshakable.

Thousands returned her love and mourn her passing.”



Bridges to Health Filling a Gap

by Linda Dottor — February 3rd, 2014   |   Clients, Design Services

Steven Larson,

Steven Larson with patient Mery Martinez and med student Daphne Owens. Jessica Koulounis for the New York Times.

Puentes de Salud, a past design grant recipient, was featured in a  recent story in the New York Times, Nonprofit Clinic Offers ‘Bridges to Health’ to Philadelphia’s Legal Immigrants.

Steve Larson, Puentes founder and a professor of emergency medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, explains how the clinic goes out on a limb to fill a gap: legal immigrants without health care coverage. “It’s not about me writing prescriptions. This is an underground health system.” 

Jon Hurdle reports, “Now, Dr. Larson is seeking financial help to open a 7,000-square-foot clinic where, in keeping with his emphasis on prevention as well as cure, half the space would be devoted to clinical services and half to education that includes nutritional advice, literacy tutoring and sex education.”

In 2012, the Community Design Collaborative helped Puentes with programming, space planning, and a conceptual design to move Puentes’ programs under one inviting roof.

Good, Green News from Nonprofit Clients

by Linda Dottor — November 4th, 2013   |   Clients, Open Space

A 2008 preliminary design for greening a vacant lot on Ridge Avenue bears fruit.

A 2008 preliminary design for greening a vacant lot on Ridge Avenue finally bears fruit.

It’s harvest time! Four nonprofit clients report that they’ve reached key milestones in projects to add green spaces in their neighborhoods.

Cook-Wissahickon School installed a native meadow and has received a PHS Community Greening Award for its schoolyard greening efforts. The Collaborative worked with the Green Committee of Cook-Wissahickon School in 2008 to develop a conceptual master plan to guide fundraising, DIY projects, and larger sustainable landscape improvements. In 2013, the Green Committee installed a native plants meadow recommended in the conceptual plan, thanks to a $27,000 grant from the Schuylkill River Restoration Fund and helping hands from Viridian Landscape Studio and the Emerging Professionals Committee of the Delaware Valley Green Building Council. The school was one of 89 nominated sites evaluated by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society for this prestigious award.

The Roxborough Development Corporation received a $50,000 grant from the Schuylkill River Restoration Fund in October to transform a paved-over vacant lot into a mini-park serving the Ridge Avenue Commercial Corridor. The Collaborative worked with the group in 2010 on a conceptual design for the park, the site of a former storefront. The grant will enable the development corporation to install pervious pavers, a rain garden, and native plants and shrubs in the neglected space.

The Enterprise Center CDC completed Max Paul Park, putting the finishing touch on this multi-purpose open space at 46th and Market Streets. The pocket park combines bench and picnic table seating with native plants and trees. The Collaborative developed a master plan for the site in 2010 that helped this in West Philadelphia nonprofit realize its vision for an urban farm, community garden, and gathering space.

Over the summer, the West Philadelphia Coalition of Neighborhood Schools raised $270,000 to green the Lea Elementary schoolyard, a $10,000 PECO Green Region Matching Grant and a $242,000 Stormwater Management Improvement Program grant from the Philadelphia Water Department. The funding will be used to implement the first phase of schoolyard greening outlined in a Community Design Collaborative’s conceptual plan. Phase 1 will have an impact on a large area of the schoolyard, adding a new rubber play surface, expanding the play area, relocating the basketball court, establishing rain gardens along 47th Street, and adding bump-outs at two intersections.

From Viola Street, a plan for reclaiming blocks

by Linda Dottor — July 29th, 2013   |   Clients, Service Grants

When you walk down the 4200 block of Viola Street in East Parkside, it’s clear that residents are taking care of the block. The street and sidewalks are clean, there’s a thriving community garden, and homes are well-kept. But the block’s residents often feel they are working against a tide of steady neighborhood deterioration.

Abandoned homes and vacant lots are sprinkled throughout the block, but a particularly troubling cluster exists at the south side of the street. Residents founded Viola Street Residents Association (VSRA) in 2008 to advocate for reinvestment on their block and, ultimately, four adjacent blocks.

VSRA asked the Community Design Collaborative to put their “grassroots, resident-driven” vision down on paper. Project Reclaim is intended to complement the West Park District Plan.

Collaborative intern Anooshey Rahim met VSRA’s Community Development Coordinator and Viola Street resident Joyce Smith in July to talk about her neighborhood, what to do about vacant properties, and her own community revitalization journey.

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What makes East Parkside unique?

I think it’s just a beautiful neighborhood… I just moved here in 2007 and I fell in love with the homes on the street. I really believe that Read Full Story