University City: Friends of 40th Street Gathers Community Stakeholders

Marcus Mays said he's lived in the 40th Street area for awhile, and that it's been significantly cleaned up. But he said as soon as you cross Lancaster Avenue, it's a "whole other world."]

In the rapidly changing neighborhood surrounding 40th Street, a variety of stakeholders have emerged with answers to the question of future development.

The corridor not only presents and continues to generate opportunity for a critical commercial and transportation thoroughfare, but also connects the surrounding neighborhoods. Said neighborhoods sit both old and new — with newer development comprising University City, budding from the growth of nearby Drexel University and University of Pennsylvania.

Marcus Mays, a longtime resident of 40th Street, said that he the area has been significantly cleaned up. However, he said that as soon as you cross Lancaster Avenue, it's a "whole other world."

Harris Steinberg, the director of PennPraxis, the clinical arm of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, said they were asked by the university to look at the 40th Street corridor.

“The goal was with the down economy, before the market picks up again, to get ahead of questions about development, scale, pedestrian character in a way that is constructive as opposed to tension around a specific development project,” Steinberg said. “They came to us to really see if we could help shape a conversation around this.”

The result was the Friends of 40th Street — a coalition of citizens and institutional presences, among community development corporations and community groups. Beyond the work by PennPraxis, University City District and Sustainable Communities Initiative-West both made significant contributions to the project, which focuses on 40th Street from Baltimore Avenue in the south to Lancaster Avenue.

SCI-West is a design initiative comprised of the work done by four CDCs in Philadelphia, which aim to improve economic activity, housing, education and quality of life in the area of West Philadelphia where they’re based. This initiative pools the efforts of the University City District, People’s Emergency Center, West Philadelphia Partnership CDC and the Enterprise Center. Iola Harper, SCI-West director, said the aim is to unify the goals and resources of these different groups.

“We essentially work with all four agencies to look at where our missions, values and activities intersect and look at ways to lift up the work we all did,” Harper said. “We work together to create and implement initiatives that benefit a broader geography with the combined capacity of all four CDCs.”

Harper said SCI-West got involved with the Friends because the project intersected with the initiative’s and four CDC’s target areas.

“As it stands today, 40th Street is the epicenter of the target area,” Harper said. “We looked at that and participation in Friends as a way to encourage and promote multiple stakeholder participation not only in what’s happening on 40th Street but in the broader West Philadelphia area.”

The Friends have been working as stakeholders in the area since 2004, when PennPraxis initially partnered with University City District for the project. Steinberg said together the partners compiled information for the project through public forums throughout the year, gathering information on their website and outreach to community organizations.

Richard Rogers was involved with the Friends of 40th Street Forums as a neighborhood resident, but feels that resident's interests aren't being represented.

The first forums to gather community input were held in 2004. Throughout June of this year, four more forums were held to continue the earlier work. Steinberg said about 100 people came out to thee meetings, comprised of a “healthy cross section” of residents, business people, institutional representatives, students and seniors.

At the Friends’ final meeting and presentation of the design goals report on Oct. 25, some residents expressed dissatisfaction with the plan and the representation of the community’s input in it.

“We heard loud and clear transportation issues and quality of public space issues,” Steinberg said. “The tension between neighborhood values and development is still very much a forefront, but the goal was to provide a framework for those discussions moving forward.”

Many voiced disapproval of much of the recent development in the area, especially projects completed by the neighboring universities.

“It’s always a tendency in these kind of public meetings for folks to want to talk about their issue, their doorstep,” Steinberg said. “We’re respectful of that, but also frame the conversation in a way that says ‘we’re here to talk about broader issues, in terms of the public realm and its qualities, which will ultimately have an impact on and relate to your issues.'”

The strain on the relationship between neighborhood residents and university developers is not a recent phenomenon. The city first approved changes to zoning and the demolition of residences to make way for university expansion in 1950, as outlined in the planning commission’s “University Redevelopment Area Plan.” This led to a  7 percent reduction to the number of homes in the area.

The city declared University City a redevelopment area in 1948.

“There’s always a tension that comes up in these meetings, but we were as successful as we could be,” Steinberg said. “There is a lot of skepticism, which I think is healthy. Ultimately it’s just having a discussion and dialogue that’s as important as the outcome.”

The final product of the work done by the Friends, “Civic Goals and Urban Design Strategies for the 40th Street Corridor,” is a report that outlines design and planning concepts to be applied to the area. Each concept addresses aspects of the community ranging from public space, transportation, preservation and development and scale and density. These attempts to ease the tensions over development by ensuring the community is represented in development decisions. 

Harris Sokoloff, faculty director of the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, led a discussion at the Friends' meeting on Oct. 25.

“Ideally, the various community groups as well as institutional stakeholders, developers, nonprofits — the whole range of civic society up and down the corridor in University City — will use this as a tool in their conversations about development,” Steinberg said.

Steinberg said that the final document acts more fluidly as a set of suggestions garnered from community opinion, rather than strict rules for developers.

“This is as opposed to saying ‘thou shall build such and such’ — that’s not our job and I don’t think it’s appropriate,” Steinberg said. “It’s about setting a core set of values and applying goals. It’s about an ongoing dialogue that the community stays engaged in the future and feels like they have something to use rather than ‘I like it,  I don’t like it.'”

Iola Harper said that while SCI-West plans to use the document with future projects, it is one of many other equally significant tools for the community to utilize.

“If you’re trying to build a house you need more than one tool, and there are other strategies, priorities that are of equal importance,” Harper said. “The importance of a document like this will reveal itself the first time somebody wants to build along 40th Street.”

Harper said that when controversy arises over a development project, this can be something to compare the project with the community’s goals.

“This is something that can be used to say, ‘this is what we said is important to us [and] does what you’re proposing fit into the framework we established?'”

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