New Temple student housing stirs a renaissance west of Broad Street

On the 1600 block of Fontain Street in N. Phila., residents talk beneath signs advertising rentals for Temple students. The boom in student housing is reinventing the area west of campus.
On the 1600 block of Fontain Street in N. Phila., residents talk beneath signs advertising rentals for Temple students. The boom in student housing is reinventing the area west of campus.
Posted: October 15, 2010

Students returning to Temple University for the fall semester heard the clatter of construction echoing through the North Philadelphia neighborhood just west of campus.

They saw crews putting finishing touches on new and rehabbed rowhouses, and a profusion of signs beckoning from windows and walls. "Apartment for Rent." "Luxury 2 & 3 Bedroom Apartments." "Student Housing, Newly Constructed, Must Rent."

But what they might not have recognized was a renaissance in the works, though they themselves are the force driving it. A long-blighted swath of about a quarter of a square mile is being reinvented, however frenetically, by dozens of developers. The largely poor and black neighborhood is being infused with thousands of diverse, mostly middle-class, youths. And it is all occurring at a pace that, in Philadelphia, feels supersonic.

"There are not a ton of examples" of renewal progressing "that quickly," said Ira Goldstein, a policy director at the nonprofit Reinvestment Fund, which supports urban revitalization.

He cited Northern Liberties - about a mile southeast of the campus - as "probably the nearest place that over the last few years has changed as dramatically."

West of Temple, the transformative boom in student housing has happened more by default than design.

During the last decade, as the university shed its commuter-school image and courted out-of-town applicants, enrollment on the main campus - undergraduate, graduate, law, and medical - swelled by almost half, from nearly 20,000 to more than 29,000. The five residence halls couldn't absorb the surge, and in 2004 the administration decided that going forward, only freshmen and sophomores could live on campus.

Today, about 5,000 students occupy the dorms. As many rent in the surrounding community.

"The strategy was that the private market would provide the housing" for the ousted upperclassmen, said Kenneth Lawrence Jr., senior vice president for government, community and public affairs.

That assumption was spot-on.

Lured by an abundance of barren lots and a guaranteed clientele, an estimated 45 developers have worked on at least 600 mostly bite-size pieces of the neighborhood, from 15th Street west to 18th Street and Susquehanna Avenue south to Girard Avenue.

Renovated rowhouses share blocks with new low-rise apartment buildings. Looming 10 stories above them is the Edge, a sleek structure with 800 dorm-style rooms, built in 2006 by developer Bart Blatstein as part of the $100 million Avenue North movie and retail complex.

More is on the way.

In the 1600 block of Cecil B. Moore Avenue, heavy equipment is clawing out the footprint of a $17 million, four-story complex of 100 apartments catering to foreign students.

Behind the project is Beech Interplex Inc., a nonprofit North Philadelphia community revitalization corporation that already has created housing throughout the neighborhood for 500 students.

Builders continue to woo homeowners such as Bertha Cohen, a great-grandmother who has lived in the neighborhood more than 35 years. They call and write urging her to sell, she said, and "they're always sticking papers in your door."

Persistence pays. For developers of rental properties in so-called transitioning neighborhoods, "the numbers work," said Gary Jonas, a partner in HOW Properties, a real-estate management firm. "The economic conditions are such that building and renting is the right market now vs. building and selling."

With relatively low costs and city tax abatements on new construction and renovation, he said, "there is an opportunity to provide quality housing and make money."

And for students, to save some.

The monthly cost of living on campus runs from about $880 for a single dorm room to $1,220 for a studio. Off campus, in a typical converted rowhouse with three or four bedrooms and common areas, the rent per student ranges from about $600 to $750.

Kyle Jacob, 19, a sophomore from Doylestown, bailed out of a residence hall after his freshman year - a year before he had to - and took an apartment in the neighborhood.

"It's nice and quiet, and you can relax," the graphic design major said of his digs in a house on Master Street. "You don't have all that dorm stuff."

Such enthusiasm for the new housing market is not universal.

The neighborhood certainly looks better, longtime residents, civic leaders, and city officials acknowledge. And real estate values are up, from a median home price of $16,000 in 2001 to nearly $86,000 now, according to Econsult Corp., which tracks housing trends in the city.

But what dismays some is the way in which change has occurred: piecemeal, privately, and at warp speed, absent a big-picture plan for redevelopment, or balances on rental properties vs. single-family and owner-occupied homes.

"There's a double-edged sword," said City Councilman Darrell Clarke, whose Fifth District encompasses the neighborhood. "The housing the developers are building physically looks pretty nice. . . . It's improving formerly vacant lots quite dramatically."

But, he added, "when you put that amount of student housing - multi-unit properties - in an existing residential community, you have a problem."

In a project to create development plans for every district in Philadelphia, the city Planning Commission has worked on one for Temple's western environs. Richard Redding, director of community planning, noted a substantial amount of federally subsidized housing in the area, and said he envisioned "a balance between the university-related population and the traditional lower-income residents of North Philadelphia."

The district plans are to be published in December, according to Redding.

For now, Clarke is calling for a breather and "not supporting any more student housing."

"If someone wants to make a valid case for building it," he said, "we make them go to the local residents."

A developer could get an earful.

Frank and Elvira Gibson, who have lived in the neighborhood more than 50 years, said about nine of the 30 or so homes on their block are occupied by students. The problems are predictable: parties, noise, trash, and parking.

When students on the Gibsons' block had a party on a recent Sunday night, "I was surprised," Elvira Gibson said. "They usually have parties on Friday or Saturday."

When the decibels rise, Frank Gibson said, he calls Temple police, and "they're here in a few minutes."

A town watch leader on his street, he said "we don't have pushers like we used to have them on every corner. You used to fight to get the pushers away." Now, what he sees are students "smoking pot in the open."

Danny Zembroski, a senior education major from the city's Olney section, has lived off campus for two years.

"Some of the older generations complain about noise," he said. "I've talked to them personally. . . . They don't want to leave, and they are seeing the neighborhood being taken over by a whole bunch of suburban white kids. Of course they are going to be angry."

But others are "all for the change," he said. "There's mixed feelings."

Zembroski himself has been "baffled" by some of the behavior. "I see girls walking around at 3 or 4 in the morning," he said. "I wonder, do they know where they're at?"

Temple police regularly patrol a block or two outside the university perimeter, but also answer noise complaints - heaviest on Thursday through Saturday - originating further off campus, said Carl Bittenbender, director of security services.

Each August, Temple police and other university groups meet with students living off campus as well as landlords. "We try to impress upon them that you guys aren't the only ones here," Bittenbender said. "There are folks who live here full time, and you are guests for four years and then you're gone."

A two-year-old group called the Temple Area Property Owners Association (TAPA), representing about 40 developers, convenes monthly to discuss student-resident issues - the big three being "trash, parking, and parties," said Jonas, the HOW Properties partner and a TAPA leader.

While parking is a long-standing problem in the area because of its proximity to campus, he said, members talk regularly with students about the newer, burgeoning nuisances.

Clarke said he intended to pursue a "student responsibility bill" in Council that would require students living off-campus to register with the university and follow a code of conduct. Also on his agenda: the introduction of legislation creating a special-services district - similar to the University City District in the University of Pennsylvania area - to help deal with issues related to the infusion of students.

At Penn, a strategic plan for off-campus housing was initiated in 2001, said Anne Papageorge, vice president of facilities and real-estate services. Of the university's 10,000 undergraduate and 10,000 graduate students, about 40 percent live off-campus.

"We felt that in order to have them in . . . safe off-campus alternatives, we needed to purchase properties on an opportunity basis," she said. The West Philadelphia neighborhoods surrounding the campus are patrolled by university police and a supplemental security force.

Penn also holds monthly meetings where members of 60 community groups can present ideas and "raise concerns with any of our projects," Papageorge said.

Around Temple, some relief is on the horizon.

This month, as part of its 10-year development blueprint called the 2020 Plan, the university began building a $148 million residence hall of at least 20 stories at Broad and Oxford Streets, on the campus' edge.

Scheduled to open in fall 2012, it will house more than 1,500 students who will be drawn from all four years, according to university spokesman Ray Betzner. He did not say whether other dorms might likewise be opened to upperclassmen.

Demographics will put a lid on enrollment, said vice president Lawrence. Based on the projected numbers of high school graduates in the next few years, "there will be no further increase in the number of students that we plan to bring to campus," Lawrence said.

"We're maxed out."


Contact staff writer Vernon Clark at 215-854-5717 or vclark@phillynews.com.

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