Karen Heller: Temple's neighborhood in danger of losing identity

The Temple neighborhood includes 15th and Thompson Streets, shown here. Temple's growth has been good for the school but has impacted neighborhoods.
The Temple neighborhood includes 15th and Thompson Streets, shown here. Temple's growth has been good for the school but has impacted neighborhoods. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 17, 2012

This may well be Temple's moment, even with slashed state funding and the search for a new leader. The university has soared in popularity, moving beyond being a commuter school to attracting students from across the state and nation, the tuition a bargain compared with that of private institutions.

During the last decade, undergraduate enrollment exploded by more than a third, students spilling into the surrounding North Central Philadelphia neighborhood of handsome 19th-century brick rowhouses. Currently, 7,000 students reside right off campus - more than live in the dorms.

Real estate speculators, some from New York and California, are feasting on the demand. It's Northward Ho! Most students left last week at the end of spring semester, but the area's narrow streets remain clogged with cranes, trucks, Tyvek-enveloped structures, and hillocks of debris, a situation residents say has intensified in the last six months. You'd be hard-pressed to find a neighborhood with a higher volume of construction.

And a neighborhood North Central Philadelphia is. The area, with a rich African American history, is in danger of losing its identity and residents to absentee landlords and transient renters with nominal personal investment in the community. Even the area's name is a source of friction: Rental properties are draped with "Templetown" banners. Efforts have been made to brand it as "Temple" as opposed to the names residents call home, North Central Philadelphia or the Cecil B. Moore Community.

"This was Philadelphia's Harlem," says the Rev. William B. Moore as we tour the myriad construction sites, silt spilling into sewers, bricks tumbling onto the sidewalk, few Dumpsters, four electric meters affixed to housing designated for one family. It's the Wild North of speculation.

"We're not against development," Moore says. "What we're against is out-of-control development that's thumbing its nose at the residents."

Moore's Tenth Memorial Baptist Church has built its own housing. Over two decades, the nonprofit Beech Interplex has invested $150 million in 1,000 units of affordable housing and 20 commercial properties, employing local labor. Now residents are being pushed out, farther away from west of Broad by real estate speculators. Beech's Ken Scott says: "They keep telling us that this is better than what we have, to which we ask, 'Better than what? Better for whom?' "

Residents and community leaders feel disenfranchised from the planning for the area's growth - not that there is a plan - especially with the proposed Neighborhood Initiative District (NID), now stalled in City Council after two contentious hearings.

"The manner in which development is being done is out of control," says James White, a Temple trustee and former university executive vice president. "I objected to the fact that residents were not involved in the planning of this NID."

The conflict involves race, age, wealth, and community needs, moving far beyond basic town-and-gown conflicts that affect schools like Villanova and West Chester or any other university primed for growth. How do you change without losing character, history, and long-term stakeholders? When most businesses are contracting, universities keep building. Temple is overseeing multiple projects, including a $215 million, 26-story dorm at Broad and Cecil B. Moore Avenue slated to open in the fall of 2013.

"We can create as many dormitories as we want," says Jim Creedon, vice president for construction, facilities and operations, a new position indicative of Temple's growth. "But we'll always compete against the freedom of students living on their own and not having a security guard telling them they can't bring in that case of beer."

Which, of course, occurs routinely west of Broad.

"When we see depleted urban spaces in this country, we basically talk about them as empty and 'deserts,' as if nobody lives there," says Temple history professor Bryant Simon. "That perception permeates the way a lot of students think of the areas around Temple. They see themselves as adding value to the area, as if their white presence, their middle-class presence, is inherently good because they think nothing was there before them."

Community leaders argue that the area will reap few economic rewards from development. Speculators get tax abatements, and construction crews tend to be white outsiders. Or they're immigrants paid in cash, resulting in no taxes for the city. The employment patterns seem cruel given that both the Rev. Leon Sullivan and Cecil B. Moore, whose names are emblazoned on an area building and the avenue, championed hiring African American community residents for local projects.

"We would like to see a moratorium on development until we form some sort of coalition of residents and business people to take a critical look," Moore says. "We would like to see responsible development where everyone's needs are met."

Temple's Creedon tells me, "We want to get better, not bigger."

But Temple keeps growing, and development continues. Enrolling more out-of-state students paying higher rates follows a nationwide trend to offset commonwealth budget cuts. Larger enrollment translates into more potential alumni donors.

Because longtime residents have no role in planning or participating in that growth, they remain dubious as to whether the area is actually improving. "Much of the construction going on there is suspect as to whether there are adequate permits and proper inspections from L&I," says White, a former city managing director. "I don't understand why the administration hasn't been more active. I don't know why the government has not been involved."

Meanwhile, there's little productive dialogue. "We live in a really diverse community and need to respect the people that live there," says Simon. "We're not engaging with a neighborhood that already exists, having a larger conversation about how we imagine urban spaces."

So here's an idea: Have one.


Contact Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.

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