Paul Steinke

When Paul Steinke was 12 years old, already a civic-minded preadolescent growing up in Northeast Philadelphia, he noticed a state representative had displayed a sign in front of his office that listed his district's neighborhoods. He forgot one.

The 12-year-old Steinke shot off a letter to the Northeast Breeze and within two weeks, the state rep's sign was changed to include the left-out neighborhood, Burholme, and a letter of apology from the politician graced the Breeze's pages.

Steinke was impressed. He was also hooked, developing an immediate taste for effecting change and playing a part in the process of neighborhood development.

The results-driven executive director of the University City District discusses his love for the city and ideas for sprucing up the area's image as a self-contained community.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Now 33 and whole lot taller (just over 6'4"), Steinke has taken on the job of executive director of the University City District after spending the past seven years as director of finance, administration and business development for the Center City District.

The urbanist spends his spare time on boards and committees for Friends of Philadelphia Parks, the Atwater Kent Museum, the Preservation Alliance and SEPTA's Citizens Advisory Committee. Commanding the UCD budget of $4.3 million (more than half of which is from Penn), he wants to do for University City what the Center City District and his old boss, Paul Levy, did for downtown.

The UCD spreads out from 30th to 50th Street, between Woodland Avenue and Spring Garden Street, making it the biggest special services district in the city with the second-biggest budget.

"Clean and safe" programs are a big part of changing perceptions, he said, but he is gearing up for a whole lot more.

Q. What was it like participating in the success of the Center City District (CCD)?
It was a great thing to be a part of, to see the improvements [Paul Levy] rolled out and their effect on Center City, both in terms of the physical environment and in perceptions of Center City. I would walk to work and make a mental list of things to be dealt with; I was notorious for my lists of things to be done -- graffiti on this corner, piles of trash on another. Very few people have the opportunity to see direct results of what they're doing on a daily basis. It's very satisfying.

Q. Have you always had a civic streak?
Wherever I go, I'm very interested in why what is there is there, how the city was built and who built it, as well as by the current situation. As a child, I was a big baseball fan. When I think about why I'm such a Philadelphia-phile, I think of looking at the standings and thinking about how Philadelphia compares to other places, as a city.

Q. How did you become involved with the University City District (UCD)?
I first became aware last spring when a former colleague who was working as a consultant told me they were in the market for an executive director and I thought it was time to put my name into the ring. Finally, I was offered the job in September. There was an acting director who had awarded contracts, and the sidewalk cleaning had started. Four weeks later, we launched the safety ambassador program. Both were patterned very closely on CCD services.

Q. How is the UCD different from the CCD?
The CCD is funded by mandatory assessments on commercial property; the UCD is funded by voluntary contributions from institutions and businesses in University City, so we don't have the taxing power most other special services districts have. The reason is that most of the properties in University City are tax-exempt, and what's not institutional is largely residential, which under state law cannot be assessed and taxed. But we have broad-based support, and we're the second-largest special services district in terms of budget ($4.3 million a year), and the largest in terms of area served.

Q. What do you think about some of the developments in University City?
It's an exciting time to be here. The major institutions are involved in major expansions. Penn, the largest institution and the largest private employer, has begun to look aggressively at neighborhood and community improvements in more ways then they have in a generation. They're trying to make University City a more attractive destination and a more attractive place to live for students, faculty and staff. And they were the primary force that created the UCD.

Q. How do ambassadors enhance the "Clean and Safe" goals?
The ambassadors have an impact on safety by being an active presence and an acting town watch. They've already intervened in situations where they've radioed the police. But, we believe the perception of safety with such a highly visible presence increases by making people feel more comfortable in University City. The community outpouring has been nothing shy of overwhelming. People constantly come up and say, "It's about time."

Q. And they get to wear those cool colors.
My first day on the job we had a uniform meeting. I was aware of bright colors and the importance of creating awareness in the community. They're yellow, green and royal blue ... made by Lands' End. Their impact has been tremendous. The visible impact is a strong component. You can see them a block away.

Q. What's next?
We got board approval for identity banners in gateway locations to create a stronger sense of place. They're going up in early February, and they'll get across seven attributes that make University City neighborhoods so special -- education, medicine and technology, athletics, arts and culture, dining and cuisine, neighborhoods and community and transportation.
   We're also working on a newsletter, a program brochure and a Web site -- we want a central clearinghouse of events in University City and a database of neighborhood events to promote. It's extraordinary how much goes on out here week in and week out.
   Down the road, we've talked about an image campaign to promote University City and discussed planning for streetscape improvements.
   Definitely, by the time someone who is a freshman now graduates, University City will be a much more appealing urban neighborhood ... known as clean and safe, known for its architecture and diversity and known for its enhanced attractions, like movies and retail Penn is planning. It will be a real self-contained community.

Originally published on January 28, 1998