With the College House system making residences more stimulating socially and intellectually, the University moved to match that with a physical upgrade through extensive renovations to the Quadrangle (completed in 2002) and to Penn’s three high-rise dormitories (to be finished by 2005).

While they have received less attention, several major new academic buildings have also been completed or begun under Rodin’s leadership. New space for education and research in the biological sciences include the Vagelos Laboratories, opened in 1997, and the Biomedical Research Building II/III, completed in 1999. The dental school added the Schattner Center to its group of buildings at 40th Street between Locust and Spruce. In addition, new buildings for the life sciences and for bio-engineering (Skirkanich Hall) are under way.

Levine Hall, home of the Department of Computer and Information Science, was finished in 2003. The Mainwaring Wing at the University Museum, completed in 2002, brought state-of-the-art conservation space for the Museum’s collection of perishable artifacts, plus more space for staff offices and student research. Skinner Hall, the former Faculty Club (relocated to the Inn at Penn), got a makeover in 2001 to transform it into Addams Hall, the new headquarters for the Department of Fine Arts. The building’s entrance gates—featuring casts of hands holding various art implements—became an instant sculptural icon on campus.

The last 10 years have also seen new building and renovation projects at the Law School, the Graduate School of Education, Van Pelt Library, and the Annenberg School for Communication and Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. Last but not least, the Wharton School’s Huntsman Hall, occupying the block from Walnut to Locust on 38th Street, set a new standard for both educational technology and—as envious students in the University’s other schools have been quick to point out—comparative luxuriousness of appointments.

Unlike the building boom of Rodin’s student years, the one she presided over has assiduously avoided displacing local residents in the University’s construction projects, fulfilling her pledge that Penn would not encroach to the west and north but rather look to the east for its future growth—an expansion made possible by the acquisition of 24 acres of land between campus and the Schuylkill River owned by the U.S. Post Office. Rodin brought this long-sought goal to fruition in March, when the $50.6 million purchase was finalized, assuring that Penn’s need for growth in future administrations would no longer endanger relations with its neighbors.—J.P.

Good Neighbor Policy

Today, it all seems so clear. Back in 1997, what was clear was that something had to be done. Whether it would work was one big, murky question mark.

“I think that this is a pivotal time for West Philadelphia—and for us,” Rodin told the Gazette that year, when Penn was about to embark on its bold effort to revitalize its neighborhood. “And that’s why this is a crucial moment to act. Urban universities need to figure out a way to enhance and revive and reaffirm urbanism as a critical feature of American life ... We are all stakeholders in the future of Philadelphia. And it’s critical.”

She wasn’t blowing smoke—not about the urgency; not about what she and Penn were going to do to address it.

The situation was unquestionably urgent. Crime had stepped out from the shadows; the previous fall, a Penn researcher named Vladimir Sled had been stabbed to death in a robbery attempt near 43rd and Larchwood, and a student named Patrick Leroy C’97 had been shot on 40th Street in the small hours of the morning. Those were only two of the most dramatic episodes. The overall crime rate—from stolen bikes to gunpoint-holdups—was soaring. And University City was hemorrhaging.

“Shops and businesses were closing, and pedestrian traffic was vanishing,” recalled Rodin this past March during a speech unveiling Penn’s new Urban Research Institute (see p. 21). “Middle-class families were leaving, and more houses were falling prey to abandonment and decay. The streets were littered with trash, and abandoned homes and buildings became canvasses for graffiti artists and business addresses for drug dealers.”

There was more. The housing market had collapsed in the late 1980s, and was still on its knees. Graduate students were fleeing to Center City, which was not only safer but had a lot more to offer in the way of retail and entertainment options. For parents of school-age children, the options were grim—especially the old, overcrowded public schools, three of which ranked at the bottom in state-administered math and reading tests. At the western edge of campus, Rodin noted, the “depressed and desolate commercial corridor of 40th Street” had become an “invisible campus boundary beyond which Penn students and faculty were advised not to venture.”

Despite many individual efforts by faculty and administrators to reach out to the community, “residents by and large still felt that Penn had turned its back on the neighborhood,” Rodin recalled.

“Who could blame them?” she asked pointedly. “Penn was so near and large, and yet, remained so remote.”

When Rodin became president in 1994, the “fundamental question” facing Penn was: “Could a university so alienated from a deeply distressed neighborhood at its doorstep continue to grow and prosper?” Some suggested that the problems were intractable, she recalled. Others encouraged Penn to “take a leadership role in revitalizing the neighborhood as a matter of enlightened self-interest.”

In hindsight, “the right call looks like a no-brainer,” she said. “At the time, however, neither my job description nor my charge from the trustees included investing large amounts of my time and the University’s funds in neighborhood initiatives.” As a result, when Penn first offered to devote “substantial resources” toward redeveloping a “distressed neighborhood that disliked us,” Rodin acknowledged that many members of the academic community “wondered aloud what we were smoking.”

The University quickly developed a game plan, which began with its “Urban Agenda” in the Six Academic Priorities section of the 1995 Agenda for Excellence.

Given the complexity of the problem, it soon became clear that Penn had
to take an integrated, multi-pronged approach. As Dr. Ira Harkavy C’70 Gr’79, director of Penn’s Center for Community Partnerships, told the Gazette in 1997: “Anything that focuses on a single-pronged attempt—by the nature of not looking at the enormous interrelated complexity that exists in an advanced society—will necessarily fail.”

“Many urban universities had taken action on one front or another,” said Rodin this past March. “None had attempted to commit to intervening holistically on all fronts at once.”

Rodin also made it clear what Penn wouldn’t do. In addition to a promise not to “expand our campus to the west or to the north into residential neighborhoods,” ever again, she pledged that the University “wouldn’t act unilaterally,” but would instead “candidly discuss what we could do with the community,” and operate “with transparency.” (For an example of that behavior, check out the approach taken by Penn Praxis on its 40th Street project at www.40thst.org, which has been a model of two-way
communication and transparent goal-setting.) Finally, Penn would only make “promises we knew we could keep,” and leverage its considerable resources by “stimulating major investments by the private sector.”

“In my mind, nothing short of a revolution would do,” Rodin recalled. “I wanted to reorient the entire administrative culture at Penn toward transforming the University and the neighborhood simultaneously.”

Today, even the most knee-jerk Penn-bashers would have to agree that under Rodin, the University has put its money—and its intellectual capital and influence—where its mouth is. University City is not without problems, but it has made impressive strides in every area.

To make the neighborhood cleaner and safer, Penn beefed up its Division of Public Safety, hiring 19 more police officers and 13 detectives and investing in state-of-the-art technology. It opened a new police station at 4040 Chestnut Street, which it shares with the Philadelphia Police 18th Precinct substation, and has upgraded some of its procedures and protocol. (Example: a computer-aided dispatch system now lets Penn Police know that an off-campus robbery in its patrol area has been reported to Philadelphia Police, which, on a busy Saturday night, might not be able to respond quickly.)

More visibly, it created the University City District, a special-services district whose uniformed “safety ambassadors”—welfare-to-work recipients—walk the streets and support campus and city police, and whose trash collectors supplement city sanitation-department units and help remove graffiti.

Not everything can be measured by numbers, but many things can. Even, to an extent, morale, and according to a recent survey, 70 percent of University City residents agree that the area is “cleaner and better” than it used to be. (One wonders about that other 30 percent, but never mind.)

Consider:

Between 1996 and 2003, total crime dropped 40 percent. Only bicycle thefts are up (18 percent), and those appear to have peaked in 2002.

Eight public gardens have been created; 450 street trees have been planted. Some 2,500 outdoor light fixtures have been installed at 1,200 properties.

Housing prices, a sure indicator of a more desirable neighborhood, have risen 59 percent. Twenty carefully selected vacant properties have been rehabbed; 329 people affiliated with Penn have purchased homes in the area; another 137 Penn “affiliates” renovated their existing homes; and 282 units of rental housing were created with private capital.

Twenty-five new stores have been attracted to the area, and foot traffic along the 40th Street corridor has increased by 86 percent. The Inn at Penn/Penn Bookstore complex, now known as University Square, employs 200 area residents.

Penn has purchased $307 million worth of goods and services under its “Buy West Philadelphia” program, and has awarded $125 million worth of contracts to minority- and women-owned businesses.

In 2002, the dazzling new Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander University of Pennsylvania Partnership School—better known as the Penn-Alexander School—opened to rave reviews at 42nd and Spruce streets.

The decision to “roll the dice” and create a new Penn-supported public school—one whose enrollment “reflected the broad diversity of University City”—was Penn’s “greatest gamble,” says Rodin now. “Everything else we did made University City a much more enticing place to visit. But if we wanted to make the neighborhood more attractive for families, we had to improve public education.”

In order to “model best practices and innovations” to other neighboring schools and “ultimately transform urban public education,” Rodin recalled, the Philadelphia School District and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers had to be involved in a “true partnership.”

“Nothing like this had ever been tried in the history of public education in America,” said Rodin, and it didn’t come easily. “First, it took a lot of persuasion and ‘gentle’ arm-twisting to reach an historic, three-way agreement. It took another year of painstaking, thoughtful collaboration with educators and community representatives to come up with a design and plan for the school, and then another year of addressing the fear and concerns of residents—some of whom were suspicious of our motives, and others who didn’t want to be left out in the cold.”

But they prevailed, and today, the partnership accomplishes a number of different things. The Penn-Alexander School provides “excellent education for up
to 700 neighborhood children,” and strengthens the other neighborhood schools by “providing professional development and serving as a source of best practices,” noted Rodin; it also serves as a community center. By making University City more attractive to young families with children, the school has further stabilized the neighborhood.

For Rodin, “perhaps the most intriguing statistic of all” has to do with the overall population of University City. “While Philadelphia as a whole has seen its population decline by 4.5 percent over the past five years, University City has seen an increase of 2.1 percent,” she pointed out. While that may not be a “staggering number by itself,” she added, “when you consider the alarming condition of this neighborhood a decade ago, that figure puts an exclamation point on our revitalization efforts.”

“There is no doubt that Penn has been transformed by our engagement with West Philadelphia and our decision to become the lead developer in University City,” Rodin said in March. “We have overcome decades of hostile relations with our neighbors to forge partnerships that have achieved remarkable progress.” Furthermore, the various West Philadelphia initiatives have won numerous national and international awards, including the Urban Land Institute’s 2003 Award for Excellence.

Ten years ago, “few thought Penn had the guts to stick its neck out for its neighbors,” Rodin said. “Today, we realize that by putting our money and reputation on the line to help revitalize University City, the neck we saved might well turn out to have been our own.” —S.H.

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2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 04/27/04

FEATURE:
The Rodin Years
By The Gazette Editors

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