Montgomery County Leadership: Bryan Fenstermaker, President and CEO, City Ave District


Bryan Fenstermacher

President and CEO of City Ave District, Bryan Fenstermaker crisscrossed the country several times before landing in the Philadelphia area. He grew up in Houston and Connecticut in a tight-knit family with two siblings. He was drawn to the team mentality of sports and had a strong work ethic at a young age, getting his first part-time job in middle school. 

After working in law for over a decade, Fenstermaker changed careers to work in urban planning and public administration. Last year, he joined City Ave District, which is working to transform this important corridor from a thoroughfare into a destination. 

Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

That’s a bit of a rabbit hole question. I was born the oldest of three children in Charlotte, North Carolina. My dad was in the insurance industry so we moved to Connecticut, and then we moved to Houston in the ’70s. 

We lived in Houston until the oil catastrophe of the ’80s and then moved back to Connecticut to be close to family. 

I went to high school and college in Connecticut, then I shot straight back to Houston. I worked for a law firm in Houston, and they opened an office in Seattle in the ’90s, so I moved there. I lived in Washington DC prior to returning to Texas for the third time.

What about part-time jobs when you were a teenager? Did you work?

I always did things early, so I started working for some home builders in Texas in middle school. I would get up Saturday mornings and hose off the sidewalks for the model homes, put the signs together, and mow the properties. I also had a lawn-cutting business. 

I remember my dad saying, “I think you’re making more money than the guys building the homes.” That stuck with me, unfortunately, because those guys were on those roofs in the Texas heat building homes, and I was some little middle-school kid riding his bike, hosing down stuff. That’s always been something I’ve carried with me. 

From there, I worked in anything from masonry work to working in my dad’s and uncle’s Meineke shops. In my last two years of high school, I worked in a convalescent home in the kitchen.

Moving around a lot, how did you adjust to a new school or new neighborhood?

As a kid, team sports made transitions easier. As an adult, I like to listen, see what’s going on, and see how I can help people. If you’re looking to solve a problem or help somebody, it’s easier to come in and try to find those places where you can make a difference and be accepted. 

Before my work on East Passyunk, I moved up from North Carolina and accepted a position in West Philadelphia. I spent seven years working at The Enterprise Center and had a wonderful time and learned a lot, working on 52nd Street and Market and The Enterprise Center.

I was working with small businesses, a kitchen incubator, and getting on the ground and meeting people and realizing there are a lot of similarities. We all have different challenges, so how you can bridge those has always been where I try to find my space. 

What kind of music floated your boat back in high school and college?

Growing up, music was always playing. My early concerts were country, which is still a big part of my life. I like a mix of alt, grunge, and ’90s stuff. That’s still a part of my playlists today. I’ve got classical on in the back if I’m at work or baseball when in season. I’m one of those people who listens to everything. 

I assume you were a pretty good student. Where did you end up going to college?

I went to the University of Connecticut in Storrs. I got a political science and history degree, thinking I wanted to be a lawyer. UConn was far enough from home but not too far. It had a beautiful campus. It was everything you’d want to see in a New England-style university. 

And did you mention that somewhere along the line, you went to law school?

I did not. I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, but I ended up working for a small boutique law firm called Susman Godfrey in Houston. They specialized in business litigation — top-notch lawyers, had clerked for the Supreme Court, national caseload — so they started opening more offices. I was working tons of hours and doing these high-profile cases. 

I put my time in — I did high-profile litigation cases — and it was hard to create a social life. I was always traveling. The firm was great, and I still have good connections to those folks today, but I couldn’t create that next level of my career and life. How does that work if I try to date somebody and I’m gone for three months? 

I was getting older, and it was time to figure out my career path. What that job provided me, to tie it all back to baseball again, is that I would meet one of my colleagues in a different city and check out baseball stadiums. When I looked at baseball stadiums, I started looking at city culture and how they interact. That led me to think, “There’s got to be some sort of a career in this field.” 

I went back to school to become an urban planner and public administrator. I went to the University of Texas Arlington. I got my master’s in city and regional planning and public administration and started working for city government in Grand Prairie, between Dallas and Fort Worth.

Looking back over your career, who were the people who saw promise in you, opened up doors, and helped you get to where you are today?

The first is Mike Stinson, my first supervisor at Susman Godfrey. He picked me out of a résumé stack. When I first went to Houston, I worked in a warehouse for the Houston Chronicle while looking for a career in law. He said that stood out on my résumé — it showed that I was timely, and in court, that matters. That got me in the door. 

Who else saw promise in you?

Well, it’s always the support of parents. My parents were always a resource to bounce things off. They never told me no. I also felt a responsibility to carry my own weight. 

In this industry, with these business improvement districts, so many people have been doing this work for a long time. Like Paul Levy, in Center City District — he’s kind of the godfather of this work. I was fortunate enough to work with him for six years. He was my board chair at Passyunk Avenue Revitalization Corporation.

How did you get to City Ave District?

In both of my last two jobs — Passyunk and [The Enterprise Center] — I was never looking because my head was always down, doing the work. I was called by recruiters for both jobs. Once you are in the process — one, you don’t want to lose, you want to get the position — but also, each time, it was that next logical step in my career.

I’m very fortunate that this job is a district on the rise. I’m excited to be here. I’ve been here for a year now, as of January.

I wouldn’t say we fast-tracked this year, but we were aggressive out of the gate including finalizing a master landscape plan and a master retail strategy plan for the district. We have some great exciting projects moving forward, including $300 million in active development that will bring additional green and communal space, mixed-use properties that will boast new retail, lifestyle, and dining attractions. We’ll tie those together to create a sense of place a true live, work, learn, and play district.

What are the challenges and opportunities you’re working on this year?

We have $300 million in development projects coming on. How do you change a neighborhood culture from a 1950s kind of destination place to now, what people call a thoroughfare, to a place of live, work, learn, and play? People want this opportunity for placemaking and socializing. 

We’ve got some great projects, whether Keystone, Federal, or Tishman Speyer. Those will be game-changers for the district. We won’t be a pass-through — we’ll be a “Hey, let’s go to.” That’s our end goal.

You already have all the anchors: the people, stores, office space, and apartments.

We still do capital improvement projects — we’ve got a couple of those teed up. We will still keep driving capital improvements and placemaking, but we’ll focus on creating that sense of place. 

70,000 people moved into Montgomery County over the past decade. You start looking at census numbers and what’s going on and the eds and meds in the area — it’s a great place to live. As I said, I’ve lived all around the country. I spent 12 years here, so there’s something to it. 

If you look around, there are a lot of parking lots. Those are all viable spaces in the future. If we weave that in with transportation and SEPTA, it becomes a place. That’s our goal.

Looking five years down the road, what do you want City Ave District to be known for?

When I pitched to the board, I said, “We want to be a destination.” We want people to say, “I’m going to move or live here.” We want that work piece to be there as well. We’ve got these office buildings — I’m in one right now, One Belmont. There is a growing workforce here, whether it’s 6abc, PCOM, St. Joe’s, or others — you can live near work. And there will be nightlife — dining, and social programming. 

We will create a sense of place where people call it more of a neighborhood. The picture I’ve been telling the board while we’ve been making some of these planning efforts is — and it’s from the neighbors on both sides, Philadelphia and Lower Merion — we want it to be seamless. When you drive down City Avenue or are in this district, we don’t want you to say, “That’s Philadelphia” or “That’s Lower Merion.” It is City Ave District. 

What do you do with all your free time, Bryan?

I’m not even the busy one in my family. I have two kids in high school and one in middle school, so we’re busy with their activities like everyone else. I also serve on a few nonprofit boards, Philadelphia BID Alliance, Laurel Hill Cemetery, and Philadelphia Association of CDCs.

My wife is even busier than I am. She’s a nurse practitioner, a teacher and a Ph.D. student. 

Do you read much?

I do. I usually have two or three books going. I just finished one this week called Music, Lyrics, and Life: A Field Guide for the Advancing Songwriter. My brother worked in Nashville for some time, and I would visit and go out in the bars and tell people I was a songwriter. I have no credentials, so we always joked about that. It’s a fun little book.

I’m reading another book on the history of the Big East basketball conference. It’s written by a local writer from Pennsylvania, Dana O’Neil.

It’s a crazy world out there, Bryan. How do you stay hopeful and optimistic?

By doing the little things. If you keep doing the small stuff, that builds up and gets you through the day. Just keep moving.

It’s funny — I was having a conversation with my daughter last night about it. She gets bothered when people say her generation needs to address this or that and she says, “Why isn’t your generation doing something?” I said, “Actually, I’m doing it at this level. I’m focusing on City Ave District, these smaller pieces where I can either volunteer or serve on a board. That’s where I spend my time. I try and make people’s lives better in a local space.”

What’s a big thing you’ve changed your mind about over the past five or 10 years?

Spending time with the kids and moving back from pressuring them. I think I was trying to be more strict when I was an early dad. I’m trying to loosen up. I’m not your friend – I’m still your dad – but I want you to like me later.

My biggest change was my career path, although it’s not in the last five or 10 years. At first, you think, “I want to be a lawyer, I want to make money, I want to do these things.” Then my wife was working with critically ill children, and my sister was a social worker. You see all this other stuff going on. I was like, “How do I make my change and make an impact?” That’s why I got into community development.

Finally, Bryan, what’s the best advice you ever received?

It’s probably my parents. They taught me to treat people how I want to be treated. Work hard. The standard message. It’s pretty simple stuff.

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