Thursday, November 20, 2008
Institutions as Community Assets
“Every real-estate operator says ‘there’s no market here,’ and so we create a market from scratch.”
These were the words of Omar Blaik, the University of Pennsylvania ’s former Senior Vice President of Facilities and Real Estate Services, now working as a national consultant, delivered today during a talk at DVRPC. When Penn started its neighborhood investment strategy in the early 1990s, it was a controversial notion to focus heavily on community development and on real-estate development to improve the university’s attractiveness and competitiveness. It had many detractors. However, today, Penn’s redevelopment work is largely considered a success, studied and imitated by institutions across the U.S.
I bring up this topic because in Philadelphia’s new economy, much of the city’s employment base is focused on colleges, universities, and medical institutions – often known as Eds and Meds. These are institutions that Jane Jacobs argued made bad neighbors. However, Penn showed that with the right approach, institutions can tear down the barriers between town and gown, and invest in shared amenities for the institution and the neighborhood.
By studying the lessons of Penn, perhaps we can glean some insight for Philadelphia’s future. As institutions like St. Joe’s, Temple, LaSalle, the Fox Chase Cancer Center, University of Pennsylvania Hospital, and others look to expand, there are many questions as to whether these expansions will end up creating a rift between institution and community, or leverage investments to create true community assets. These types of questions also surround the urban design impacts of the city’s two proposed casinos.
The way that our institutions develop has stunning impacts on their surrounding neighborhoods, and on our city at-large. This lesson is clearly shown in Penn’s dismal past and promising current investments. Let’s take another look at the Penn story.
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Omar Blaik began his talk today by giving his audience a flavor of the daunting circumstances under which he began. Since the 1950s the university had developed defensive structures, forming a door-less, windowless wall on Walnut Street. In the early 1990s, the university published a guide for students advising them not to venture west of 40th Street.
Blaik invited a reporter from the Daily Pennsylvanian, Penn’s student newspaper, to visit him in his West Philadelphia home to write a story about how it was actually safe and livable around campus. However, his secretary switched the meeting to Blaik’s office, last minute, telling her boss that she did not want the student journalist doing the interview off-campus at Blaik’s home, because it was not safe there.
One of the major keys to Penn’s revitalization strategy was to understand that it is not just about buildings. First it was about safety. Penn increased its police force, and installed pedestrian-scaled lamps in front of houses through the community. Next it was about living in the community. Penn created its famed mortgage program, incentivizing staff and faculty to live on campus. Then it was about education. Penn pumped money into the local public middle school, making it one of the best in the region, and attracting suburban families with young children to start looking at West Philadelphia.
Then it was about transforming the perception of the area surrounding campus. Penn replaced a large parking lot at 36th and Walnut Streets with a keystone building housing Penn’s new bookstore and street-level retail. Next it was about blurring the lines between campus and community. Penn had a major stake in developing the Fresh Grocer supermarket and the Bridge multiplex movie theater, with restaurants and retail attached.
Finally it was about attracting private investment. Dranoff renovated the West Bank building; the Hanover Company built Domus on land leased by Penn and purchased from the RDA; Terra Holdings built the HUB on Chestnut with Jose Garces’ celebrated new restaurant, Distrito; and the list goes on.
Blaik noted that this recent revitalization was intended to fix the mistakes of the 1950s-1970s. During that period, the Black Bottom neighborhood (memorialized on a wall at University City High School) was bulldozed by the RDA to build the University City Science Center. Then Penn built the aforementioned defensive architecture on the north side of its campus, cutting itself off from surrounding communities. Then the area declined, and blocks previously demolished for urban renewal sat vacant or became parking lots. The faculty all moved to the Main Line and the students all moved to Center City.
In reality, it is unclear how much the urban renewal era actually affected the socioeconomic shifts in the area around Penn. Had the Black Bottom remained, during the period when Philadelphia lost its industrial job base and a quarter of its population, it is possible (if not likely) that the decline around Penn would have been just as severe.
However, it is clear that the urban renewal era development did start a trend of poor urban design on campus, perpetuating a disconnect between campus and community. Blaik told the audience that he saw it has his job to “blur the lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’” and to fight the trend of “subsidizing a lifestyle of living in the suburbs and commuting into the city.”
One interesting point Blaik made was that many universities now seeking to revitalize their campus in a way similar to Penn’s, are having a much harder time because they do not own huge quantities of land. By a strange twist of fate, Penn’s recent real-estate boom was largely made possible through the eminent-domain condemnation of huge tracts of land back in the 1960s. This was condemnation at a scale that never would be palatable today.
Another important point is the one I started with – the idea of building an economic market from scratch. No supermarket chain wanted to locate on Penn’s campus, because they claimed that the customer base was not there (Indeed the Census data was deceiving – failing to reflect students’ families’ incomes). However, the Fresh Grocer is now earning over $800 per square foot. Why could the more mainstream supermarket chains not see beyond the numbers and identify this enormous potential?
This fact gets to one of the greatest challenges of the planning profession: How to convince developers, the business community, the City, and the public, that planning and urban development can profoundly alter the look and feel, the image and perception of a place. Indeed, through sound planning and development, we have the power to create a market that never existed. The key is getting a consumer base to change their perception of an area, and be willing (if not anxious) to go there to shop, work, or live. In other words, Penn’s challenge was how to transform the perception of 40th and Walnut Streets from the edge of the earth, to a safe, vibrant, and attractive urban crossroads.
Much of this image-changing power has to do with the way buildings are constructed. Had Penn allowed a supermarket to build a huge parking lot in front of its store, as in the suburbs, the Fresh Grocer might have attracted some of its current clientele, but it surely would not have had the same transformative power as its current, street-level, urbanized design (The Fresh Grocer’s suburbanized store at 56th and Chestnut has shoppers, but did not positively transform its surrounding area). Coupled with the equally urban movie theater across the street, the two structures utterly redefined this intersection. The success of urban development has as much to do with its use as it does with its urban design, and the image of the surrounding area.
Blaik remarked on the remarkable diversity of the Fresh Grocer’s clientele – elderly residents from the nearby senior housing, an array of students, West African immigrants, nearby families, university faculty and staff. Penn certainly has its share of community tension, but with the Fresh Grocer, the Bridge, farmers markets and some of the new retail, Penn arguably created a tremendously successful link between the campus and community, in a way that seems seamless within the urban landscape.
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Penn proved that Eds and Meds don’t have to be bad neighbors, if they can plan outside their campus walls, and invest in a way that builds a true nexus between town and gown. Penn used its financial resources to create shared amenities (like supermarkets, movie theaters, housing, and farmers markets) for both students and neighbors.
Penn has certainly gotten its share of criticism for its recent revitalization program. Penntrification is the buzzword for the displacement of existing communities, caused by Penn’s recent investments. I have contributed to this criticism, citing the fact that supporting existing residents in the face of rising costs was not part of Penn’s program. However, that burden really should fall on the City. City Council has the ability to implement programs that tackle this issue. I have written more about that.
Despite this criticism, Penn did a spectacular job taking on an almost insurmountable problem and turning it into a great success. It took an understanding of the link between crime, education, local amenities, transportation, and urban design in transforming an area. It took well over a decade to really get off the ground, with lots of brushes with disaster, and a healthy dose of skepticism along the way. It took people who understood how the market functions, what the next steps needed to be in Penn’s comprehensive strategy, and had the know-how to look beyond the campus.
One of Blaik’s key points was that “institutions need people who know city planning, not just campus planning.” Surely this lesson will be key for Philadelphia’s institutions to become better neighbors, incubators of community development, bastions of good urbanism, and anchors in a vital city. As we move ahead with other institutional expansions, and as we plan for the placement of two casinos, I hope that we all keep the complex, but critical lessons of Penn fresh in our minds.
Posted by Gregory Heller