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What's next for University City High School?

The University City High School property

The University City High School property

The University City High School property

The University City High School property

The University City High School property

On June 19, the Philadelphia City Council passed a bill rezoning the 14-acre property that's home to the shuttered University City High School. This rezoning was the last hurdle to overcome before the School District of Philadelphia could finalize the $25 million sale of the land to Drexel University and Wexford Science and Technology.

That sale sets in motion major changes for West Philadelphia residents living near the site of the former school, located between 36th and 38th streets and between Market Street and Lancaster Avenue. While the building has been largely vacant since University City High and Drew Elementary School were closed in 2013 and 2012, respectively, it is now poised for $1 billion of mixed-use development. 

According to Lucy Kerman, vice provost for university and community partnerships at Drexel, the project will feature new residential, commercial and retail units; the plans also reserve a portion of land for a K-8 public school, a Drexel academic building and public green space.

Reaching consensus

While the sale of the property has been finalized and the rezoning bill passed, getting to this point wasn't easy. Even before the February announcement that Drexel and Wexford were the top bidders for the property, tensions were running high.

Michael Jones, president of the Powelton Village Civic Association, was ultimately pleased that Drexel and Wexford emerged as potential buyers, but he testified before the School Reform Commission about the inadequate public input in the selection.

"It is unfathomable to me that the City would sell this land with no provisos or conditions attached to the development and without input from neighbors," he said. "It is completely irresponsible."

Lucia Esther, head of the West Powelton Saunders Park Registered Community Organization (RCO), had problems with the lack of transparency and the hurried nature of the development planning.

"They really didn't want to go through the Planning Commission," she argues. "They didn't want to go to the RCOs, because that was just going to take time. They didn't want to the Civic Design Review. Their tactic was they were going to go straight to City Council."

And with the help of Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, they did. A zoning bill was brought to the City Council Rules Committee, but the vote was delayed after complaints from community groups and even Blackwell herself about last minute changes to the zoning plan and a failure to address community concerns.

Time was short to find a solution. Both the deadline for the sale and the summer recess for City Council were fast approaching. After a frantic week of negotiations between Drexel, Wexford, Councilwoman Blackwell and community groups, a compromise was reached.

That compromise includes a Community Benefits Agreement to protect the interests of neighborhood residents and to give community members a continued voice in the development process. According to Jones, this will include input in the site planning process, design review for buildings constructed on the property, and input over the interim use of the property during the period before development is complete.

The deal also includes height limitations along Lancaster Avenue, Powelton Avenue, 37th Street north of Warren Street and the 3600 block of Warren Street, a limit to the number of parking garages on the site, and an increase from five to seven years for the period of time land must be reserved for the development of a public school.

These compromises seem to have won the support of most community groups.

"Neither side got everything, but I think we're happy." says Jones.

"It's important for zoning to strike a balance between establishing the parameters of development consistent with a neighborhood's character and allowing for community comment and influence when development seeks to push against that character," says Farah Jimenez, president and CEO of the People's Emergency Center (PEC). "This rezoning attempts to strike that balance."

A new school?

The biggest question for the community is whether or not a new school will be built. When Drew Elementary and University City High closed, many students were forced to into schools further from their homes. Enrollment at Samuel Powel Elementary School, which absorbed many former Drew students, swelled dramatically.

In a March 2014 report summarizing community input from residents in Powelton, West Powelton, Saunders Park and Mantua, Jones emphasized the need for a new school. 

"The main concern expressed by residents was the need for a new K-8 district-run public school," he wrote. "A high quality educational use promises to be an enormous catalyst for other positive developments in the neighborhood."

Fortunately, the desire for strong local educational options is shared by Drexel. 

"Our commitment is really to work in partnership with the community to develop a school that builds on a strong, high-performing school that is already in the neighborhood," says Kerman. 

That high-performing school is Powel -- Drexel has partnered with them for the last two years. According to Kerman, Drexel plans to help Powel add one additional classroom for each grade to accommodate more students. A new partner middle school, operated by the Science Leadership Academy, would also be built. Both schools would be neighborhood schools.

Inevitably, the project has drawn comparisons to the Penn Alexander School, located at 42nd and Spruce. Penn Alexander is a high-performing K-8 school that receives financial assistance from Penn (over $1,000 per student) to help cover operational costs. The expanded Powel Elementary and new Science Leadership Academy would not follow the same model.

"Drexel is not in the position to make that kind of operating commitment, but we are committed to working with partners to identify financing tools," explains Kerman. "We see ourselves as an educational partner and an organizational partner in a lot of ways, but not as a funding partner."

Ultimately, the creation of a full set of K-8 offerings with enough capacity to meet the needs of the community depends on securing funding and approval from the School District. According to the updated zoning bill, the community and Drexel will have at least seven years to make that happen.

A community garden at risk 

Education is not the only issue. Since 2000, the Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative has operated a community garden on the grounds of University City High. Staffed primarily by local high school students, the garden remained open even after the high school shut its doors. The garden produces one to two tons of food per year, mostly vegetables but also fruit from a dozen trees. Ten percent of the food grown in the garden is donated to support local populations. A quarter is sold to low-income community members using EBT or SNAP. The remaining food is sold every Saturday at the bustling Clark Park Farmers' Market.
With the sale to Drexel and the rezoning of the property, the future of the garden is in jeopardy. According to Kerman, it will not be able to continue to operate at its current location.

"That site is going to be a construction site," she explains. "It's not going to be an appropriate site for a farm."

As of now, nothing is finalized. The new zoning designation does not preclude the preservation of the garden. While not optimistic, Donkey Dover, schoolyard farm manager for the Urban Nutrition Initiative, wonders if there is a better path forward.

"Rather than knocking down 15 years of work and starting over, is there was a way for Drexel to mind the community's desire for green space and to realize there is an asset already there?" he asks.

Kerman did suggest one option: relocating the garden to the Mantua Urban Peace Garden, a recently opened community space at 37th and Brown streets. The Mantua garden is part of a partnership between Drexel, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, and the community that aims to provide better access to healthy, fresh food, increase public green space and serve as an educational resource.

A relocation might offset some of the losses, but not all of them. In addition to providing food for the community and jobs for high school students, the University City High garden is also one of the last vestiges of the Black Bottom neighborhood. 

Black Bottom was a working-class African-American neighborhood that until the 1960s covered the land surrounding the University City High property. As part of an urban renewal process initiated by the city, local universities (including Drexel) and local hospitals, properties in Black Bottom were seized using eminent domain and redeveloped. Thousands of residents were displaced. At the time, the City claimed the area was suffering from large-scale blight, but residents remember a neighborhood that was poor, but well-maintained and vibrant. 

Nestled within the community garden is a memorial to Black Bottom, with placards recounting the neighborhood's history and a mosaic depicting the bulldozing of the neighborhood.

"It's the last place that I know of in the neighborhood that you even hear the words 'Black Bottom,'" says Dover, who has worked at the site for the last five years. "What I find most frustrating about the entire thing is the aspect of knocking down the neighborhood, then knocking down the garden that is there to remind folks of the neighborhood."

Looking forward

With the sale complete and the rezoning bill passed, Drexel and Wexford are set to begin development. For the most part, community stakeholders sound hopeful.

"I believe this development has the opportunity to be transformative, in a positive sense, if the development is well done," says Jones. "It could be a tremendous asset to a thriving residential Powelton, West Powelton and Mantua."

"There is a lot of agreement between the community's and Drexel's vision for the site," adds Jimenez. "Continued trust and communication will create the win-win so desired by all parties."

Not only does the development have the potential to bring jobs, economic growth, new retail and a new school, it also has the chance to connect the surrounding communities.

"The site must serve as bridge, not a barrier between neighborhoods," says Andrew Frishkoff, executive director of the Philadelphia Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC). "Residents, students, and workers in new buildings should feel drawn north towards Powelton and Lancaster, as well as south towards Market."

There are still a number of unanswered questions. Funding for a new middle school is uncertain. The future of the community garden is in doubt. The nature of the retail and commercial development on the site is unknown. The amount of green space and public space is up in the air. But with a Community Benefits Agreement in place, a councilwoman who has shown she isn't afraid to stand up to developers and strong community groups advocating for the interests of residents, optimism is in the air.

BRANDON ALCORN is the project manager for Global Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania and a freelance writer whose work has recently appeared in Nature,The New Republic and Slate. Follow him on Twitter at @b_alcorn.
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