North to the future

Symbols of the renais-sance: Temple's new medical education and research building (left), at Broad and Tioga streets, and the new Tyler School of Art, on the main campus.
Symbols of the renais-sance: Temple's new medical education and research building (left), at Broad and Tioga streets, and the new Tyler School of Art, on the main campus.
Posted: September 08, 2009

NORTH PHILADELPHIA has experienced an explosion of building activity that is changing the face of a section of the city once considered blighted and unsafe.

Just last month, the Temple University School of Medicine welcomed its Class of 2013 into a striking new 13-story high-rise on Broad Street, between Tioga and Venango.

And, soon, the city is expected to announce plans for a major transit, housing and community-revitalization project for Broad Street and Erie Avenue, just north of the new medical school building.

Temple, which has grown rapidly in the last decade, has driven much of the development - but not all of it.

Long before the medical school and other dazzling buildings opened at Temple, several housing developments began springing up all over North Philadelphia, in sections as far east as Norris Square and Kensington and as far west as Strawberry Mansion and Francisville.

"In tough economic times, people with any money at all move toward value with whatever spending they do," said Mark Alan Hughes, an expert in urban policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

With Temple as an "anchor institution" and with Center City close to its southern boundary, "North Philadelphia remains a great value location for people moving from renting to owning . . . while staying close to city jobs or city life," Hughes said.

Consider these projects:

* The city has approved plans by Bart Blatstein, owner of Tower Investments, to renovate the State Office Building, at Broad and Spring Garden streets, into a mix of residential and commercial space.

* A development at 9th and Berks streets, close to the Temple station of the SEPTA regional rail line, will provide housing for Temple students and for the nearby community to the east. The Association of Puerto Ricans on the March is a partner in the development.

* Progress Plaza, on Broad between Jefferson and Oxford, is undergoing a $16 million renovation that will include a 46,000-square-foot Fresh Grocer supermarket expected to be completed by the end of the year.

* Blatstein built the Piazza at Schmidts, a $100 million complex of five apartment buildings, five restaurants and more than 40 shops that opened earlier this year at 2nd Street at Germantown Avenue, in Northern Liberties.

A trip to Rome 30 years ago inspired the developer.

"I thought the European flair for public space was great," he said.

Before the Piazza went up, the area "was all abandoned, a run-down factory and short-dumping land," Blatstein said. "It was nothing there."

John Kromer, former director of the city's Office of Housing and Community Development (OHCD), said that the city's decision to make "lower North Philadelphia a priority" for new-home-ownership programs in the early 1990s spurred private development now going on near Temple.

Kromer, author of Fixing Broken Cities: The Implementation of Urban Development Strategies, said the city's efforts and the Philadelphia Housing Authority's push to build new houses in a long-ignored section of North Philadelphia have helped to save the area.

"A priority was given to build in the area between Spring Garden to Montgomery Avenue, both east and west of Broad Street," Kromer said.

"That gave private developers more confidence in the area."

In the 1992-93 fiscal year, 21 PHA scattered-site housing units were completed in Francisville, north of Fairmount Avenue. OHCD supported the building of Francisville IV, a 21-unit home-ownership project completed in fiscal year 1999-2000.

Today, several other community-development corporations and the OHCD are still building housing developments and renovating some older homes:

* Construction of 54 homes, part of the third phase of the Cecil B. Moore Home Ownership Zone, is under way. The zone spans a 12-block area from Montgomery Avenue to Master Street and from Bouvier to 20th, said Holly Ramey, a spokeswoman for the OHCD. Construction of another 33 houses, also part of the third phase of a total of 293 homes, is to begin in 2010, Ramey said.

* In Ludlow, an area bounded by 6th and 9th streets and by Girard and Cecil B. Moore avenues, the Association of Puerto Ricans on the March recently completed the Pradera 3 houses. Only nine of the 25 homes remain unsold.

* The Twins at PowderMill, at Castor Avenue and Wingohocking Street, near Juniata Park, was completed earlier this year on an old industrial site.

* The Norris Square Civic Association just completed 48 homes near Hunter Elementary School, on Front Street near Kensington Avenue. The homes, called the Hunter School Home Ownership Program, are south of the school at York Street near Howard.

Besides its new medical school, Temple has either recently opened or is planning other buildings on its main campus, the heart of which is at Broad Street and Montgomery Avenue:

* Alter Hall, at 13th and Montgomery, home of Temple's Fox School of Business, and the relocated Tyler School of Art, at 12th and Norris, both opened in January.

* Reconstruction of the historic, 118-year-old Baptist Temple, at Broad and Berks streets, into a performance hall should be completed by January, Temple spokesman Ray Betzner said.

* The university plans a new science-research building at 11th Street and Montgomery Avenue, and a dormitory at Broad and Oxford streets, on the site of the University Services Building, which is to be demolished soon.

Also, private developers have other projects in the works near Temple:

* The Edge II, another Blatstein apartment building, is planned for the area between the Avenue North, at Broad and Oxford, and the Edge I, which Blatstein built at 15th and Oxford in 2006. Blatstein also built Avenue North, a multiscreen cinema and shopping complex that opened in December 2006.

* An International House for foreign students is proposed at 16th Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue.

* The old Wanamaker School, on Cecil B. Moore Avenue at 11th Street, is slated for a "mixed-use" development including dormitories for Temple students, a community school for children and a job-training center for adults.

* The Diamond Green project, at 10th and Diamond, to include two buildings for 700 students and up to 24 townhouses for the community, may begin in November.

One cannot talk about development in North Philadelphia without noting the bursting-at-the-seams growth at Temple.

The university had a 60 percent jump in enrollment in the last decade. Last fall, about 22,600 undergraduates were registered at the main campus. And 11,000 of those students were housed on or near campus, spokesman Betzner said.

Student applications rose sharply in 2000, with many students citing the big-city atmosphere as a draw.

"They wanted the Philadelphia experience as part of their educational experience," Betzner said. "They wanted to live in Philadelphia, go to the restaurants, shops, clubs, the museums and ball parks.

But the sudden growth spurt forced the university to declare in 2004 that it no longer could provide on-campus housing for students after the first two years.

That sent private developers scrambling to build or rehab nearby properties, both east and west of Broad Street, that once housed longtime residents.

The push by developers to build or rehab student housing has, in some cases, strained relationships between the university and community residents.

Some residents in Yorktown, a community just south of Temple, between Cecil B. Moore Avenue and Girard Avenue and from 9th to 13th streets, have pushed back. They demanded that the city enforce zoning laws that restrict renting single-family homes to students. A lawsuit challenging the restriction is pending.

Other residents complained that although progress is good for the city, they worry about the impact on the long-term residents.

For example, as Temple's new medical school was under construction, a few residents complained that the towering high-rise would block the sun from their two-story rowhouses and cause higher energy bills.

Anita J. Chappell, a corporate officer in Progress Investment Associates, which owns Progress Plaza, at Broad and Jefferson, said that shopping-center officials wanted to build a four-story apartment building above the new Fresh Grocer, but area residents' opposition dashed the plans.

"It's disappointing when you know that people don't always understand the benefits to themselves and their neighbors," Chappell said.

"Progress is necessary," Chappell said. "And we should position ourselves to be a part of that process so we can benefit from the growth.

"If you don't own anything, then you are sort of subject to the will of somebody else."

State Rep. W. Curtis Thomas, who represents North Philadelphia, said that although development is good, "I'm concerned about whether we have provided families with what they need to appreciate the development."

Fear of being pushed out was behind a recent successful fight by community members against a Philadelphia School District plan to close William Penn High School, at Broad and Master streets.

Thomas would like one of the hospitals along Broad Street to partner with the school to reopen a health academy for students interested in medical careers.

Given the programs that William Penn once had, he said, the school could again draw students from all over the city.

"We should never talk about closing a school without also talking about rebuilding that educational arena for our kids," Thomas said.

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