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Inventing the Future: Drexel eyes University City High School for development

The fate of Philadelphia's shuttered schools remains up in the air, but there is a glimmer of hope in West Philly. Last week, heavy internet chatter implied that Drexel University was interested in purchasing the University City High School site (the school was one of 23 closed this fall due to budget constraints). It's a huge property in the heart of a rapidly evolving neighborhood, and the deal could have a tremendous impact.

For now, the university is staying relatively tight-lipped. "Drexel is strongly committed to public K-12 education in Philadelphia and particularly in Powelton Village and Mantua," said Drexel Director of Media Relations Niki Gianakaris in an email. "The University is sincerely interested in the future of the University City High School site and will continue to be involved in discussions about the development of the site."

Flying Kite was able to connect with Kira Strong from the People's Emergency Center (PEC), a nonprofit and community development organization working in the West Powelton, Saunders Park and Mantua neighborhoods. They are also watching the situation closely.

One possible option is that Drexel would open a university-assisted school, similar to nearby Penn Alexander. That project has provided stellar education to residents, while also producing a large (and not uniformly welcome) spike in property values within the school's catchment -- home prices have quadrupled since 1998.

"Since it's such a large site, it has such potential to shift so much in our neighborhood," says Strong. "We want to guarantee that there's a community voice in the planning from the outset. How do we steward a really open process?"

Strong also mentions some of the infrastructure issues that could be remediated under Drexel's stewardship.

"When that site was developed -- when they put Drew Elementary and University City High School there -- they closed off the street grid," she explains. "You could argue that it has impacted Lancaster Avenue, and the ability of Lancaster Avenue to remain a connected, vibrant commercial corridor. Is there a way to re-engage the street grid and provide those connections?"

All this speculation certainly speaks to the vibrancy of University City and the wealth of willing partners in such an ambitious project. And while the outcome remains to be seen -- and buying a publicly-owned property is not as simple as putting in an offer -- the deal could be truly transformative. 

"A rising tide lifts all boats," says Strong. "If there is opportunity -- job opportunities, educational opportunity -- for youth who live in that area, that could be a really positive outcome."

The University City Science Center has partnered with Flying Kite to showcase innovation in Greater Philadelphia through the "Inventing the Future" series.

LEE STABERT is managing editor of Flying Kite.
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