Temple of doom? Developers, expansion, rowdy students endanger a good neighborhood

Council President Darrell Clarke recently hosted a community meeting at Amos Recreational Center, 16th and Berks streets, to address community opposition to his proposed neighborhood-improvement district bill.
Council President Darrell Clarke recently hosted a community meeting at Amos Recreational Center, 16th and Berks streets, to address community opposition to his proposed neighborhood-improvement district bill. (SHUMITA BASU / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: April 23, 2012

BEVERLY FLOURNOY loves the clean, well-kept North Philadelphia block where she has lived with her mother for five years.

Small gardens enclosed by wrought-iron fencing thrive in front of dozens of new and renovated rowhouses on 15th Street near Susquehanna Avenue. Slender trees sprout lavender blooms or budding green leaves.

Children ride scooters on the sidewalk, their playful squeals providing a soundtrack for a family-oriented community where, Flournoy says, "everybody looks out for everyone else's kids."

But Flournoy, 55, is worried. She fears that she and her 85-year-old mother, Mary Smith, may one day be forced out.

"When we first moved here, and I saw all the Temple students walking around, I said, 'It won't be long before they move us out of here,' " Flournoy said.

Flournoy, a former school-bus attendant, is not alone in her fears. A boom in new-housing construction, mainly for Temple University students, has changed the face of North Philadelphia over the past decade.

And founded or unfounded, the fear and anxiety among many longtime residents that they may be displaced could thwart City Council President Darrell Clarke's push to create a neighborhood-improvement district (NID) for the area.

The next public hearing on his bill is scheduled for May 3, and the earliest it could be approved by Council is June 21.

If the North Central Neighborhood Improvement District bill is approved, an extra 7 to 10 percent tax assessment - applied only to landlords and business-property owners - is expected to generate $450,000 for services like sidewalk cleaning and safety patrols.

But the measure has lain bare years of simmering tensions between old-time residents and the growing Temple community that threaten to scuttle a plan that supporters believe would make the neighborhood a better place - for everyone.

No one can deny that North Philadelphia looks a lot better than it did because of the new construction, which is mainly student housing, said Herb Reid, spokesman for the Temple Area Property Association, a group of landlords that supports the NID.

"But it's also hard for anyone to argue with the fact that student behavior is an issue," he adds. "It's not most of the kids. It only takes a minority of bad seeds for there to be an outcry about student behavior."

There are only three or four houses with Temple students on Flournoy's block, but "I feel like they are just taking over the neighborhood.

"They moved in this block and it was a peaceful little block. Now they have parties on Friday nights. . . . I actually seen a girl come out of that house and she had to urinate - the boys wouldn't let her back inside - and she urinated right there in front of one of our neighbor's houses."

She said that other neighbors report that they've seen students having sex outside at night and that they've found used condoms near their front steps.

Nearby, on a recent Tuesday, Eleanor Blunt points to a pile of eight to 10 plastic bags filled with garbage scattered on the sidewalk on Norris Street, near 19th. The bags had been out since Sunday night. Pickup wouldn't be until Wednesday.

"If we put our trash out before 5 p.m. the day before trash day, the city will be out here writing us a $50 fine," said Blunt, an office manager. "But I've never seen them give these Temple students any tickets."

Students walking near 16th and Oxford streets on a recent afternoon said that they were aware that some neighbors don't feel that neighborly toward them.

"There's a lot of tension where I live," said Steve, 22, a senior who gave only his first name. He concedes that some students have loud parties that upset older residents:

"I guess it is disrespectful to the residents," he said. "It was their community first, and some students aren't respecting their wishes."

Temple is building its largest facility, a 1,200-bed dormitory, on Broad Street at Cecil B. Moore Avenue.

"We are being responsive to the community's desires to see more students move on campus," said Temple spokesman Ray Betzner.

Clarke's measure would mean added services for the area, but even some of his closest allies are speaking out against his plan.

They see it as being imposed on the North Philadelphia community by a group of developers who stand to benefit from the housing demands of Temple students.

Critics include the Rev. William B. Moore, of the Tenth Memorial Baptist Church, and Ken Scott, of Beech Companies. Both have worked with Clarke to develop their own housing programs.

"The NID is like giving somebody a Tylenol for a headache," Moore said. "It solves an immediate problem but doesn't solve a long-term problem."

The bigger issues, he said, are that developers are able to "buy up every available piece of land" and that they are getting over-the-counter zoning permits to build housing. Moore said that the city wasn't monitoring the replacement by developers of single-family housing that once existed.

According to Scott, the real issue is whether Temple landlords will have control over undeveloped parcels in the community.

"The question the residents are raising is that the area is being controlled by landlords for Temple, and how [does the community ensure that] their interests are being represented? " Scott said.

"I've heard that worry a lot," said Reid of the landlord group. "I've heard that people are looking down the road and [thinking] what it could grow into. It will never be that. The spirit of it is the same as it is in every other part of the city [that has a neighborhood- or business-improvement district]. The emphasis is on safety and cleaning."

Community members, meanwhile, allege that Clarke worked mainly with developers and Temple to devise the NID bill without seeking their input first.

"How dare you come into our neighborhood and create a plan without the participation of the community and expect them to go along with it," said Vivian VanStory, president of the Community Land Trust, an agency she created in the 1980s to preserve open space in the neighborhood. "We were denied our right to participate in the process."

Jane Roh, a spokeswoman for Clarke, wrote an email to the Daily News noting that Clarke talked with community leaders for two years before introducing the bill.

In a letter to the Daily News last month, Clarke wrote that the NID would not affect ordinary homeowners because the extra tax would be levied only on landlords, not on owner-occupied single-family homes.

However, because homeowners are not assessed an extra tax for the NID, they also can't petition against it.

Gerald Frug, a Harvard University law professor who has studied neighborhood-improvement districts, said that the way this NID bill would be set up appears to be unfair.

"A landlord-only vote disenfranchises most of the neighborhood," Frug said. "This means, first of all, the residents. In a democracy, people who live within a city can vote for its officials. The NID adopts the opposite rule.

"It would not surprise me to find out that the desires of residents, commercial tenants and property owners about the development of street life are not the same."

Clarke has made several amendments to the original bill.

Language has been removed that gave substantial voting power to Temple and the landlords over the community. Other amendments would allow only the city to impose liens, rather than NID management, and it would prevent the NID management from purchasing property.

Clarke has some supporters.

"I'm tired of walking around these streets looking like I'm in a war zone," said Louise Bundy, who lives near 17th and Master streets and thinks that the measure will beautify the area.

"If something was wrong with [the NID, Clarke] would see that it's not done. I don't believe he would do anything to harm us," said Bundy, 72, who is retired from her City Hall job in the office of the Register of Wills.

But Rochelle Bilal, president of the Guardian Civic League, an organization for black police officers, said that her members who own rental property in the area are against the NID.

"Why now?" Bilal asked. "For years people lived in North Philadelphia and got no attention. Now, because Temple [housing] is taking over most of the area, the idea is you have to raise taxes to take care of Temple kids."

At the last hearing on the bill, even James S. White, a Temple trustee, expressed doubts about the NID and said it was a plan designed "for Temple and the developers to the exclusion of the neighborhood residents."

White said that his opposition was "about the respect of the neighborhood and the neighbors who have been there for 50 years when nothing has been done."

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