I’m probably going to be a bit unfair here because I’m sharing an article that talks about the measures UPenn went to reach out into Philly to transform neighborhoods and revitalize the local economy. I realize that while enrollment numbers are similar between Kent State and UPenn, the similarities probably end there. Still, when the former UPenn President was quoted as saying “a university worth its salt has to show itself, its neighbors and its students it’s willing to take on the thorniest issues of its time … to put real skin in the game” — I couldn’t help thinking about what could happen here in Kent. If you still think it’s an unfair comparison, just look 8 miles down the road and see what the University of Akron has been doing. Very progressive stuff.
Community building 101
Thirty-three armed robberies hit on or near the University of Pennsylvania’s Philadelphia campus in September 1996. Broken glass, trash and sometimes discarded drug paraphernalia littered the area. Dark, empty streets made students and staff feel jumpy.
A month later Vladimir Sled, a 38-year-old Russian ÉmigrÉ and Penn biochemist, got caught in a scuffle with robbers. He was stabbed several times and died shortly afterward at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center.
That was the decisive moment, the indisputable signal, writes Judith Rodin in her just-published book, “The University & Urban Revival,” that the university she then headed would have to make a radical turn.
Penn could claim great wealth, intellectual preeminence, Ivy League status. With close to 300 acres on its campus, an enrollment of 23,000 — and 24,000 employees at the university and the medical center, it’s Philadelphia’s single largest private employer.
But suddenly, in what Rodin recalls as those “terribly scary” days in 1996, it was clear. The institution’s preservation was now at risk. “Nothing short of a revolution” in how Penn dealt with its neighborhood would now suffice, Rodin writes.
Almost immediately, steps in what would become known as Penn’s “West Philadelphia Initiatives” started. A “clean and safe” operation was announced, seizing on James Q. Wilson’s theory that “broken windows” telegraph a message of absent public order inviting crime.
So policing services weren’t just stepped up sharply; Penn launched a campaign to repair broken windows, fix cracked sidewalks, clean up graffiti and litter, and light the streets, including thousands of fixtures on privately owned properties.
The university’s neighbors were engaged in a conscious effort to build “social capital” — a caring and effective area. A 2.2-square-mile University City District (UCD) was set up, on the model of central Philadelphia’s highly successful business-improvement district. UCD removes graffiti and trash, counsels home and business owners, and deploys several dozen “safety ambassadors” to patrol the streets 16 hours a day. A stunning variety of similar initiatives followed. A historic park was revived and a farmers market added. Neighborhood watches were enhanced. University police foot patrols were coordinated with Philadelphia city police. A tree-planting and streetscape-tending urban gardening collective started up.
On a parallel track, Penn intervened to bolster homeownership and upgrade the deteriorated housing stock in University City, including attention to rental stock and protecting its low-income neighbors from being forced out by gentrification. The university pledged it would never again seize local residential property for its own expansion. It encouraged, and itself invested strategically, in major new retail development to turn stretches of low-grade buildings and parking lots into attractive, welcoming streets.
Penn also worked to help local businesses (many minority-owned) share significantly its hundreds of millions of dollars in yearly purchases of goods and services. And it started up a new, model local public school.
It was a daunting task. Some faculty were highly skeptical, fearing diversion of scarce dollars from their staff slots and research. Others asked if community building was a university’s job at all.
But Rodin (now president of the Rockefeller Foundation) insists a university worth its salt “has to show itself, its neighbors and its students it’s willing to take on the thorniest issues of its time … to put real skin in the game.”
Why universities? Corporations, Rodin notes, have become so global “that the city where they sit is less vital to them.” The biggest job-providers in many cities, universities and medical schools, may find civic leadership thrust on them — and fittingly, “because they generate what makes today’s Knowledge Economy.”
As for Penn itself, she argues, it tripled both its research funding and endowment and rose from 16th to fourth in the U.S. News & World Report yearly ranking of American colleges and universities during the 10 years she was president.
Other universities that remade their community ties have also prospered. The message to all universities is clear: Your time for leadership has arrived; being a constructive, good neighbor isn’t fluff — it’s absolutely critical.
Town homes near UA closer to reality
First phase of 25 units on City Council plate
By Carol Biliczky Beacon Journal staff writer
Published on Sunday, Jul 29, 2007
The first of some long-awaited town homes near the University of Akron could be ready in a year.
The 25 units at Brown and Power streets would be the first owner-occupied residential project in University Park, a blighted area that UA, Summa Health System and others have targeted for revitalization.
Akron City Council will consider the first phase of Spicer Village at its meeting Monday.
‘‘This is wonderful,‘‘ said Ken Stapleton, executive director of the University Park Alliance, which is charged with revitalizing the 1,000-acre area. ‘‘We think there is significant pent-up demand for this.‘‘
The project was unveiled in 2005, then delayed because of the complexities of developing in an urban area with multiple property owners and issues.
‘‘These are always complicated projects. It's not like buying a farm and laying out lots, ‘‘ Stapleton said.
The project aims to bring more owner-occupied homes into the area, said Tim Ziga, president of ASW Properties Inc., parent company of the developers, ASW Spicer Village LLC and 473 Brown Street LLC.
‘‘It would be something different, not your typical house in the suburbs or an allotment.‘‘
It would focus on a new urbanism movement of pedestrian-friendly downtown neighborhoods.
The town homes would have one to three bedrooms and 1,820 to 2,900 square feet, with garages and rooftop decks 29 feet above street level. The lower level of the homes would be brick; the upper levels would include opaque, translucent panels that would ‘‘glow like lanterns‘‘ at night, Ziga said.
Akron is acquiring property to extend Kirn Avenue from Crouse to Power streets. The city also would create a walkway fronting the north row of condominiums, eliminate Gray and Emmet courts and provide street, water and sewer improvements.
At $200,000 plus upgrades, the town homes are designed to appeal to UA faculty members and staffers as well as other professionals who work downtown, Ziga said.
He thinks the location is ideal; UA's library, a proposed football stadium and other offerings are blocks away. Already, UA, Summa and others have invested tens of millions of dollars to improve their facilities.
Some home buyers may not want to be the first in a development like this, which at least initially would be surrounded by modest, turn-of-the-20th-century homes often rented by college students.
Other projects in the city that started with fanfare have stalled.
Over the last two years, developers Tony Troppe and Todd Ederer have sold only one of the 70 single-family condominiums they aim to build at Hickory Street and Memorial Parkway in North Akron, with reservations for two more.
Their development would be built to look like an historic canal town, with front porches facing walkable streets and garages off private lanes.
The custom-made homes, priced from $180,000 on up, ‘‘are not moving as fast as we would like,‘‘ Troppe said. ‘‘Its just a matter of time before we get a break in the market.‘‘
But Ziga expects success in Spicer Village, with 12 to 15 units to be sold in the first year and all 25 to be sold within 18 months. The first units should be ready in June.
This would be the first of four phases in Spicer Village, which also would include development by the Bord family: Kevin Bord, father Bill Bord and uncle Fred Bord.
All phases of Spicer Village 100 town homes total should be completed or under construction in five years, Stapleton envisions.
‘‘We’ve been pleasantly surprised at the number of people who have expressed interest,‘‘ Ziga said.