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COUNCIL 2002-2003 Year-end Committee Report

Final Report of the University Council Committee on
Community Relations

February 10, 2004

Scheduled for Discussion at Council on February 25, 2004

This report represents the findings of the Committee on Community Relations for the Fall semester 2003. The Committee met  four more times, during the Fall semester on 09/11/03, 10/09/03, 11/20/03 and 12/11/03. We focused on the first specific charge from University Council for the academic year 2002-2003. "Clarify the role of this Committee in understanding and giving advice on the real estate activities of the University". We started to work on this charge last semester by talking with Senior Vice President for Facilities and Real Estate Services Omar Blaik and the Director of City and Community Relations, Glenn Bryan. Both suggested that a useful role for this committee would be to act as a watchdog and to play an advocacy role for the local community.

Does the community need a watchdog for University real estate activities? To explore the feasibility of a watchdog role for our committee, we first sought input from the community on this issue. We met with Ms. Melani Lamond, the secretary (an elected office) of the University City Community Council (UCCC). This group is an umbrella organization of University City neighborhood organizations and special interest groups, including Cedar Park Neighbors, Garden Court Community Association, Walnut Hill Community Association, Powelton Village Civic Association, Saunders Park Neighbors, Squirrel Hill Community Association, and a few other groups. The UCCC is comprised of the presidents of the individual organizations in order to provide one strong group that could give advice, share expertise, and build consensus. Ms. Lamond is also an Associate Broker at Urban & Bye Realtor, a University City real estate office. Ms. Lamond shared with us some issues that had been contentious between the community and the University but felt that, in general, the community, or at least those members who are active in  community associations, was happy with recent University initiatives.

At our next meeting, in November,  we took a virtual tour of West Philadelphia by meeting with Professor Dennis Culhane at the Cartographic Modeling Lab in the School of Social Work. This lab specializes in the use of geographic information systems (GIS) and spatial analysis methods to research the Neighborhood Information System (NIS). NIS is a password protected neighborhood database for everyone's use. NIS is the source for interactive  tools and city-wide data about neighborhoods from the City of Philadelphia administrative records and includes: school district, child welfare, public health and property (taxes, codes, fire, utilities). This system is of great value for public administrators, which enables it to be maintained as a service to the community and the city at large. These sites also support Penn faculty on campus who are doing research in the neighborhood.  The information is updated quarterly, with batches of data received from PGW, the Water and Fire Departments. To assist individuals seeking neighborhood data, NIS loans them digital cameras and pocket PC's with standardized software. Our interest  in this database was to explore whether the  information can be used as a gateway to the community. In particular we were concerned with whether it could provide us with information on the less enfranchised members of our community who may not belong to community organizations or have the resources to access information conduits that Penn uses. The West Philadelphia data includes the element around the school catchment  area and information such as residential sale, number of unsold houses, and % of residents below the poverty level.  Professor Culhane took us on a "tour" of abandoned properties in University City. He described to us the relationship between homelessness and housing abandonment. He explained that the earliest alert of an abandoned house is when utilities are shut off.  He pointed out that the City of Philadelphia does not take title to abandoned properties as in other cities, (for example, New York City). Instead, Philadelphia has the sheriff sale process.  The committee was very impressed with the database as a public resource. Based on information found in NIS, the city and state have funded five homeless centers. Our virtual tour of housing in University City revealed that there was  a marked difference in the incidence of abandoned housing areas where the University had been proactive. However there were still large pockets, particularly between 50th and 52nd street.

How well does the University think it listens to the community on real estate issues? In order to educate ourselves regarding the University's perception of the impact of its real estate policy on the community, the Committee also met with Ms. Carol Scheman, Vice President for Government, Community, and Public Affairs on 10/09/03 and with Mr. John McGarry, Director for Real-Estate Brokerage on 12/11/03. They avowed that the University is ever mindful of the impact of real estate on the community. Many real-estate decisions have had a positive impact on the neighborhood. For example, the stabilization of the neighborhood in the Alexander school catchment area. The University has been very successful in reducing the number of abandoned homes in this area. Furthermore, the University has sold off properties that were used for illegal rooming to be used for single-family housing. In addition, the University's partnership with Fannie Mae had resulted in the acquisition of 211 units up to 50th Street with the objective to stabilize rents. 

What impact does the University's real estate policies have on the UC communities and how well does it seek and use input from its members? The general feeling of the Committee was that although the Office of Community and City Relations does very well in its outreach work to the public, the office could be more effective with greater resources. The timing of the first Thursday monthly meeting at 8 a.m. prohibits many people from attending, particularly residents who have school-age children to attend to. The committee recommends that more resources should be provided to this office so that it can hold more than one meeting a month, advertise it more widely and develop alternative strategies to inform the public. In addition there is an impression that while the University does seek community opinion on new initiatives, in fact in most cases the key decisions have already been made and the University is unlikely to reverse them. Some examples that the Committee heard of were the Alexander school and the 40th Street project. In both cases, although public opinion on these projects was solicited it was well after their initiation. Finally the improvement of the real estate market, particularly, within the Alexander school catchment area, has made home ownership for the less wealthy members of our community impossible, particularly for first time owners. Despite this, there  are more positive feelings associated with the University involvement in the community than negative expressed by community organizations.


In the spirit of playing an advocacy role for the community we have the following recommendations:

Provide more resources to the Office of Community and City Relations so that it can extend its outreach to the community, particularly to the less-enfranchised members of the community who do not have access to the internet and other middle class communication outlets.

Involve the community at an earlier stage of real-estate planning so that they don't feel that they are being presented with faits accomplis.

Stabilize the communities further west by rehabilitating abandoned housing between 50th and 52nd street and extending the mortgage program out to 52nd Street. Both the mortgage and the housing rehabilitation program for this area should be constructed so that they focus on providing more affordable housing for lower income families.

2002-2003 Committee on Community Relations

Chair: Yvonne Paterson (microbio/med)W; Faculty: Judith A. Fisher (family practice & com med), Aravind Joshi (CIS)W*, Cristle Collins Judd (music)W*, Lynn Lees (history)W, Yvonne Paterson (microbio/med)W*, Holly Pittman (hist of art)W, Georgette Poindexter (real estate), Robert Zimmerman (radiol at CHOP)W*; Graduate students: David Dehoney (SEAS), Michelle Icenogle (SSW); Undergraduate students: Ebele Mora (WH'06); Ophelia Roman (COL'05); PPSA: Rosemary Barber (SOM Administration), Heather Calvert (SS Heubner Foundation IRM), Conley Heaberlin (CCEB), Zelice Roache-Brown (Nursing); WPSA: Sylvie Beauvais (Health Care Systems), Troy Odom (Student Disabilities); Ex officio: Valerie Dorsey Allen (dir, African American Resource Ctr), Glenn Bryan (dir, community relations), David Grossman (dir, Civic House), Ira Harkavy (dir, Ctr for Community Partnerships). Note: * - Indicates reappointment as chair or member. W - Indicates person resides in West Philadelphia.



  Almanac, Vol. 50, No. 23, February 24, 2004