Since the decision six years ago to commit millions of University dollars to help its neighborhood, and thereby the University, the neighborhood has indeed changed.
Penn’s actions came from many directions at one time, not all of them orchestrated. “It was not constructed as a single master plan with a unilateral, programmed approach,” said Tom Lussenhop, managing director of institutional real estate.
For example, wanting to make some immediate progress, a can-do group of administrators, staff and students called the 40th Street Action Team decided in 1996 to target the dismal physical streetscape on nearby 40th Street. They quickly increased lighting, planted trees, painted, repaired sidewalks and cleaned, from Sansom Street to Baltimore Avenue.
“The purpose is to make an immediate impact in a short period of time that will improve the quality of life for our students, faculty, staff and community members,” said Executive Vice President John Fry as the team went to work on the commercial district where the neighborhood and the campus meet.
Other changes took longer, but their impact was also dramatic.
Since March of 1998, when the Office of Community Housing began providing purchase and fix-up incentives to its staff buying homes in West Philadelphia, 276 Penn affiliates have purchased homes in University City and 125 took advantage of the home improvement program, said Stefany W. Jones, director of community housing.
Of those 276 home purchases, half were for houses selling for less than $100,000, said Jones.
Like the residents already in the neighborhood, the new home buyers run the gamut as far as income and ethnicity are concerned, said Jones. One of the new residents, astonished at the community’s diversity, said, “My nanny lives a block away. You don’t find that anywhere else.” The speaker was Omar Blaik, vice president for facilities and real estate services.
Other University housing efforts included the rehabilitation of 20 houses, some historically significant and others more modest, all ultimately sold to owner-occupants, said Leroy Nunery, vice president for busines services.
The University made $66 million in purchases from West Philadelphia vendors in 2001, up more than $7 million from 2000, said Nunery. Six years ago, the figure was below $35 million.
Purchases also went to minority- and women-owned businesses that are increasingly tied to Penn. In the construction projects like Sansom Common and Huntsman Hall, the percentage of minority and female workers probably ranged from the high teens to 35 or 40 percent, said Nunery, depending on the project.
Behind the crime drop of 36 percent from 1996 to 2001 are actions taken by the University, including the addition of 19 officers to the Penn Police and cooperative policing with city and local police and security forces, said Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush.
Besides Penn’s hiring of Allied SpectaGuards to patrol the neighborhood—the first time in history that any national security company performed a walking patrol, Rush said—the University spearheaded a special services district, the University City District (UCD), by convincing other area institutions—including Drexel University, the University City Science Center and the West Philadelphia Partnership—that their welfare also depended on the welfare of the neighborhood. UCD has taken on safety and cleanliness issues, as well, and patrols as far away as 52nd and Chester.
The many issues Penn tackled were mentioned in the “Spruce Hill Renewal Plan” of 1995, created by community members aided by Ira Harkavy, director of the Center for Community Partnerships, a graduate student—”working 24-7 for a year,” said Harkavy—and the planning faculty. The community’s plan was critical to the approach the University ultimately took, said Harkavy. He added that not all the means the University employed came from the community plan.
Multiple means made the difference, with housing, jobs and safety just the tip of the iceberg. “It’s like pushing a wet noodle. Everything takes an enormous amount of time and an enormous amount of effort,” said Carol Scheman, vice president for government, community and public affairs.
For more information on the University’s West Philadelphia Initiative, see www.upenn.edu/president/westphilly/.
Originally published on January 24, 2002