Ivy's growth transforms a city

Penn's $500m expansion could be Harvard's model

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / May 3, 2009
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PHILADELPHIA - It used to be that the University of Pennsylvania would warn its students not to cross 40th and Walnut streets, a seedy corner on the edge of campus once nicknamed McDeath because shootings and stabbings commonly occurred just steps from a McDonald's.

That was in the mid 1990s, before Penn launched a $500 million initiative, before it bought and redeveloped block after block of blighted buildings and empty lots, before an upscale grocery moved in, an art-house cinema, even a Mexican restaurant owned by a celebrity chef. Today, the neighborhood is filled with faculty, students, and hope.

Here in Boston, another Ivy League university has plans to remake another gritty urban enclave - Allston - over the next five decades. As Harvard stutter steps its way toward a massive expansion of its campus, first moving too fast for neighborhood tastes, and now not fast enough, the lessons from Penn's investment in West Philadelphia can be summed up in a single word: commitment.

Penn never pretended to be performing public service. Its massive investments in the community, school officials said, were designed to improve the university. It stopped making excuses, fronted the money for projects large and small through good and recessionary times, and got the job done.

At the same time it began making risky forays into real estate, Penn started a public elementary and middle school to attract families and stabilize the neighborhood. It planted thousands of spruce and silver maples along barren sidewalks. It gave faculty and staff cash incentives to buy homes there, and some of its top administrators moved in.

Even now, construction continues, just as it did during the downturn in 2001 and 2002.

"This is not altruism or noblesse oblige," Penn president Amy Gutmann said in a recent interview. "It's the right thing to do because it can make us stronger as well as our community stronger."

While Penn built up the neighborhood to improve the college, Allston residents hope that Harvard's push to expand its own footprint will lead to improvements in the neighborhood. Allston does not come close to approaching the level of deterioration that plagued West Philadelphia, but the historically blue-collar neighborhood, where Harvard owns more than 350 acres, is pocked with university-owned lots and storefronts that have sat vacant for years.

Now, in a battered economy, residents face the prospect that a science complex central to Harvard's growth will sit unfinished for many more years. The complex, originally slated to open in 2011, was expected to bring hundreds of scientists and workers to the neighborhood and house restaurants and retail outlets on the ground floor. Today, it's a yawning five-acre hole.

Judith Rodin, a West Philadelphia native and Penn graduate, spearheaded Penn's remarkable urban transformation during her decade-long tenure as the university's president. When Rodin took office in 1994, Penn had walled off its leafy campus from dangers beyond. University buildings opened inward. Dumpsters and loading docks faced the neighborhood. And so neighbors were skeptical when Rodin and her team approached them about working together to improve the area after the murders of several students in the mid-'90s.

But the university persuaded one of the most vocal neighborhood leaders, Barry Grossbach, to join its efforts as a community representative, giving him a vote on a board created to oversee the new business improvement district. Grossbach helped Penn identify decaying residential blocks so the university could buy up dilapidated boarding houses, convert them to single-family homes, and sell them at a loss in the beginning.

Rodin had to defend the unusual investments to professors who thought the money should be spent on academic pursuits.

"The faculty had a right to say, 'If you buy houses in West Philadelphia, are you not funding the English Department?' " Rodin said.

Penn gave its employees $15,000 cash incentives to buy homes in the neighborhood. Block by block, century-old houses were made over with new lighting and fresh paint. Since 1998, more than 600 university employees have taken advantage of the homeownership program.

Omar Blaik, who oversaw Penn's revitalization efforts, was the first university administrator to move into the neighborhood. His six-bedroom Victorian twin, purchased for under $200,000 in 1998, is now worth more than $700,000, he said.

Blaik, now a consultant to the Boston Redevelopment Authority on the Allston expansion, said universities should not need a crisis like the threat to Penn's reputation and neighborhood safety to invest in their communities.

"That is part of our core mission," Blaik said. "Do we actually only do good when there is bad? Shouldn't we aspire to greatness when things are OK?"

Today, once-unimaginable amenities have sprung up on the block once lined with check-cashing outlets and a strip club.

In recent years, Penn also leased land to developers for market-rate apartments, putting retail and restaurants on the ground floor. To counter criticisms of gentrification - or Penn-trification, as some call it - the university has tried to address the need for affordable housing by renovating several hundred apartments and maintaining below-market rents. It also subsidizes rent for some retailers, to keep mom and pop shops, such as a used bookstore, in business.

When Whole Foods and other national chains passed on opening a grocery store at the corner of 40th and Walnut, citing demographic concerns, Penn filled the need with the locally owned Fresh Grocer, now one of the highest-grossing markets in the city. Another critical project was a six-screen cinema complex.

"When times are tough, that is really the time to build up community good will by not leaving things in a state of abandonment," Grossbach said.

The key component to West Philadelphia's revitalization, residents said, has been its investment in the public Penn Alexander School, which opened in 2001. Professors from the Graduate School of Education design the curriculum and visit the school weekly to train teachers. The university also subsidizes operation costs at $1,330 per student, on top of public funding.

The school has attracted hundreds of families to the neighborhood, making it a safer place to live. Amy Neukrug, who lives across the street from the school, where her daughter is a seventh-grader, said the police call box placed at her front yard when Rodin became president was removed in 2004. Crime had declined so much it was no longer needed, Neukrug said.

"We recognized that what's good for Penn is good for Philadelphia and vice versa," said Pennsylvania's governor, Edward Rendell, who was mayor of Philadelphia when the West Philadelphia revitalization began and is a 1965 Penn graduate.

Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust, who lived in West Philadelphia for 22 years and taught at Penn, called its work in the community "transformative" and "commendable." But while there is much Harvard could learn from Penn, she said in an e-mail, "our focus is on finding the approaches that allow us to leverage Harvard's strengths for the benefits of our neighbors."

Last month, Harvard officials updated the community on the status of $25 million in neighborhood benefits, including a new park, scholarships for Harvard Extension School courses, and an education complex where local children receive tutoring.

Penn is now setting its sights eastward toward the Schuylkill River, with plans to transform 24 acres of industrial land into athletic fields and a public park within two years. But as the university turns its gaze elsewhere, longtime West Philadelphia residents say it is imperative that Penn not forget about them.

"It would be foolish for the university to decide that the western portion of the neighborhood can just take care of itself now," Grossbach said. "Things are very cyclical in urban communities. All that has been accomplished could just as easily vanish."

Tracy Jan can be reached at