Is the new North Central district Temple’s version of University City? Here’s how they measure up

The North Philadelphia neighborhood around Temple University was just designated as a new special services district, encompassing the blocks just west of Broad from the 40,000-student public university.

It’s a move that provides the community with, well, special services. Officials who founded the district say it will make the neighborhood more livable, by beautifying the streets and promoting public safety.

Dubbed the North Central Special Services District, it isn’t the first of its kind in Philly — conventional wisdom says Center City’s renaissance owes much credit to its SSD — and it’s also not the first to be created near a college. Temple officials said they modeled the new district after the University City District, which was founded in 1997 to spruce up the community around Penn and Drexel.

Twenty years later, what do the two districts have in common? And what can the UCD’s progress tell us about where North Philly is headed?

The districts are similar — but they’ve got some major differences in size, funding and leadership.

The southwest corner of North Broad and Montgomery, once the site of the Grand Opera House, is now occupied by Temple's Liacouris Center

Emma Lee / WHYY

In a stark example of how priorities can change over decades, the reason the two college-associated districts were founded are nearly opposite.

Once known as Black Bottom, the West Philly neighborhood near Penn started gentrifying in the 1950s. It was designated an official “redevelopment zone,” and GI Bill-related subsidies fueled an influx of new residents. By 1970, about 5,000 residents had been displaced, and the colleges had effectively overtaken the area, giving rise to the University City name that sticks today.

In the late ’80s, Penn started noticing a trend: its graduate students and faculty were flocking away from West Philly. Roughly 70 percent of the school’s graduate students opted to live in Center City instead, citing mostly safety concerns in the neighborhood, per a 1997 Inquirer article. And a lower percentage of faculty lived in University City in 1997 than in 1960.

After a series of highly publicized crimes — including a fatal stabbing of a student on Halloween — graduates and faculty weren’t eager to plant roots in the community. Penn officials worried the attitude was affecting their ability to compete with other Ivy League schools.

Temple’s dealing with the opposite issue. More and more students choose to live in North Philadelphia every year, displacing some longtime residents. Oftentimes, since students have no permanent stake in the neighborhood, they bring more trash and more loud parties to the community — making it uncomfortable for their neighbors.

Stakeholders are looking to the NCSSD to increase the quality of life for people who are totally unaffiliated with the university — but who live in its shadow every day.

The district can also been seen as an effort to improve relations with community residents, which have long been burdened, but got worse when the university started pushing for an on-campus stadium smack dab in the center of the North Philly neighborhood.

Temple officials have denied that the SSD is connected to the stadium, but University President Richard Englert said about the stadium in March 2018: “The facility would be the linchpin for a special services district.”

University City Market Street looking east

Emma Lee / WHYY

So the founding reasons are different — but the goals for the two districts are actually quite similar.

At the turn of the millennium, Penn officials said they wanted to duplicate the success of the Center City District. They wanted to clean up trash, reduce crime and make the neighborhood more appealing for students and faculty.

“We’re all about clean,” John Fry, a Penn vice president and chairman of the district, told the Inquirer in 1997. “We’re all about safe. We’re all about vibrancy.”

Temple, now, wants to make the neighborhood more appealing for longtime residents — but by completing the same tasks. They’ve promised to mitigate community problems like trash, crime and student behavior — and provide workforce and educational opportunities.

At its inception, UCD covered 30th to 48th streets, from Spring Garden to Woodland Avenue — an area of about 120 square blocks. It has since expanded latitudinally, from 29th to 50th streets.

The near-Temple version is considerably smaller, stretching from Broad to 18th and from Oxford to Dauphin streets.

At its 1997 start, the University City SSD got $4.3 million in funding to last five years, paid for by Penn and Drexel and corporate sponsors like CHOP, Amtrak and the U.S. Postal Service, according to an Inquirer report.

The NCSSD has a much smaller price tag: $500k for the first year, funded by Temple (though the university is seeking some sponsors of its own).

A stark contrast exists, too, in the leadership of the districts. While UCD conducted a national search for a director — ultimately hiring former Center City District higher-up Paul Steinke — the NCSSD put at the helm a longtime resident and Temple staffer named Tara Miller.

The older, more established University City version has a bit more muscle: two dozen staffers, while North Philly so far has nine.

In the 22 years since its inception, UCD has maintained active trash pickup programs, plus graffiti cleanup initiatives and the installation of new banners, lights, signs and planters all around the community. Also, it employs staffers on foot patrol to help pedestrians find their way and watch out for criminal behavior.

The district helped bring some amenities to the neighborhood, per an Inquirer story:

  • An upscale movie theater
  • Farmers markets
  • Discounts at local businesses
  • Free parking
  • Murals
  • Maintenance for Clark Park
  • The “Go West” campaign, which encouraged people from all over the city to shop in West Philly

It’s too early to say for sure what the North Central SSD will implement — but so far, it’s promised trash pickup services contracted by the homelessness nonprofit One Day at a Time. It also vows to better enforce the Good Neighbor Policy, disciplining students who have loud parties.

And via its website, NCSSD will help publicize community events and services available to longtime residents. Folks can also submit complaints directly to the board.

Reactions to the UCD district were a mixed bag. Over the years, the Inquirer reported more and more Penn students and faculty funneling into the neighborhood — meeting the SSD’s initial goal. Real estate agents, among others, were thrilled.

Still, the new vibrancy in the neighborhood naturally contributed to gentrification. Home prices in the community doubled from 1998 to 2011 — and since 2000, the University City District has lost more than 882 low-cost rental units.

Will the same happen to North Philadelphia? Some neighbors think so — and they’ve turned out to protest, alleging they were excluded from the process of hiring the board.

“Having a person with no expertise on the board will leave us still with trash on the street, still with the bad community relations, still wasted time,” Judith Robinson, chairperson for the 32nd Democratic Ward RCO, told The Temple News. “And then when the money goes, we’re back to square one.”