Author’s Blog: Neighborhood Revitalization and the Anchor Institution: Assessing the Impact of the University of Pennsylvania’s West Philadelphia Initiatives on University City

This is an author-produced blog post to introduce upcoming Urban Affairs Review articles. This article is available in OnlineFirst. The abstract and article are available to download for free until October 25, 2015. 


Meagan Ehlenz

Early Friday morning, January 18, 2013, adults began forming a line outside the Penn<!–[if supportFields]>XE “University of Pennsylvania” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> Alexander School (PAS<!–[if supportFields]>XE “PAS” \t “See  Penn Alexander School” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]> XE “Penn Alexander School” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>) in Philadelphia’s University City neighborhood. By nightfall, more than seventy people had literally set up camp with tents and sleeping bags extending down the block to guard against the twenty-nine degree (F) chill. While this scene may be familiar to concertgoers or video gamers the night before a big release, the inhabitants of this encampment were different. They were all parents of 4 year olds with a single goal: to enroll their children in kindergarten when class registration opened on January 22nd, four days later.

When PAS<!–[if supportFields]> XE “Penn Alexander School” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> opened its doors in 2001, few anticipated the implications of its first-come, first-serve enrollment policy. The Penn<!–[if supportFields]>XE “University of Pennsylvania” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>-sponsored public school had been conceived in 1998 at a time when West Philadelphia<!–[if supportFields]>XE “Philadelphia:West Philadelphia” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> was plagued by crime, families were fleeing the neighborhood, and the public school system was in disarray. In response and conjunction with neighborhood associations, the University of Pennsylvania (Penn)<!–[if supportFields]>XE “University of Pennsylvania” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> had fostered a relationship with the Philadelphia<!–[if supportFields]> XE “Philadelphia” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> School District to establish a neighborhood elementary school. The university donated the land for the K-8 facility and invested substantial resources into its construction and operations. These investments were a key component of Penn<!–[if supportFields]>XE “University of Pennsylvania” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>’s broader neighborhood revitalization strategy, the West Philadelphia Initiatives (WPI<!–[if supportFields]>XE “WPI” \t “See  West Philadelphia Initiatives” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]> XE “West Philadelphia Initiatives” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>), which aimed to stabilize neighborhood conditions, improve property values, and attract and retain residents.

At the outset, Penn<!–[if supportFields]> XE “Penn” \t “See  University of Pennsylvania” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]> XE “University of Pennsylvania” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> and the School District were committed to PAS<!–[if supportFields]>XE “Penn Alexander School” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>, yet they could not envision a day when their classrooms would be at capacity and parents would be clamoring to claim slots for their children. To the contrary, they were holding their breath and hoping this seedling of revitalization would take hold. More than fifteen years after the implementation of the WPI<!–[if supportFields]>XE “West Philadelphia Initiatives” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>, the neighborhood has changed dramatically. Crime rates have fallen, beautification and commercial development projects have rejuvenated neighborhood amenities, Penn<!–[if supportFields]>XE “University of Pennsylvania” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>’s homeownership programs have set the stage for several hundred families to invest in the neighborhood, and the PAS<!–[if supportFields]>XE “Penn Alexander School” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> has developed a reputation as a stellar school. Collectively, Penn’s investment in the neighborhood contributed to the January 18th scene with families prepared to brave the winter weather for four days in order to gain access to PAS<!–[if supportFields]>XE “Penn Alexander School” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>. The school had reached its enrollment capacity; the neighborhood’s housing sales prices now had a $100,000 premium to live within the PAS<!–[if supportFields]> XE “Penn Alexander School” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> catchment zone.

Simply, Penn<!–[if supportFields]> XE “University of Pennsylvania” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–>’s WPI<!–[if supportFields]>XE “West Philadelphia Initiatives” <![endif]–><!–[if supportFields]><![endif]–> was a huge success—but was it? That is what this study attempts to discover. Penn is an anchor institution—a non-profit institution with deep physical, economic, and social ties to its neighborhood, as well as its city and region. It is representative of more than half of the universities in the US (or about 2,000 institutions), which are located within urban neighborhoods and have substantial physical assets, including real estate holdings and institutional infrastructure. Penn also exemplifies a growing trend for university anchors—the commitment of institutional resources (including financial and human capital) to improve not just the campus, but also the surrounding neighborhoods.

Given their “rootedness” in neighborhoods, universities have long been interested in (and impacted by) the health of their neighborhoods. Neighborhood decline—higher crime rates, rising poverty levels, housing disinvestment and abandonment, and poor quality schools, parks, and public services—represents a concern for the city, but also a threat to the university. As many university administrators will tell you, it does not matter how idyllic the campus or how impressive the university’s reputation, parents are less willing to allow their kids to matriculate if they perceive the neighborhood to be unsafe.

During the 1950s and 1960s, universities, in partnership with their cities, made use of Urban Renewal programs to solve neighborhood decline. These strategies took a sledgehammer approach, using “slum clearance” and demolition to erase blight from their neighborhoods. In its place, universities often used the land for campus expansion, building research buildings, dormitories, and parking facilities. This approach, however, was short-lived and provoked a hostile relationship between the institution and a wary community.

Since the 1990s, universities have used a more subtle approach to neighborhood revitalization, strategically investing in projects and programs with the intent to improve, not demolish, the neighborhood. Once viewed as threats, universities leaders now recognize an opportunity to help shape neighborhoods into assets. They achieve this by directing university resources—money, skills, knowledge, and time—into a range of neighborhood improvement strategies, such as off-campus commercial and mixed-use developments, housing improvement and homeownership programs, neighborhood safety and policing efforts,  and, in some instances, high quality neighborhood schools.

Here, we turn back to Penn, its neighborhood (University City), and its investments the West Philadelphia Initiatives (WPI). Visual evidence suggests that University City has improved significantly since the WPI began in the late 1990s and early 2000s—there are new vibrant commercial areas, home values have increased, crime is down, and a successful K-8 university-city partnership school sits at the center of the community. Yet, while some cry “Penntrification!” and others hold up Penn’s effort as a best practice model for university-led revitalization, there has not been a systematic analysis of change in the neighborhood.

This study moves beyond the anecdotal, using descriptive statistics from the US Census and American Community Survey (ACS) to describe University City’s transformation between 1990 (pre-WPI investments) and 2010 (roughly ten years after the full WPI program took effect). Over twenty years, I look at changes in demographics (total population and racial composition), socioeconomic conditions (poverty and median household incomes), and housing (dwelling units, vacancy rates, owners versus renters, and median home values). Spatially, I measure change in University City in two ways. First, I compare University City’s trajectory to the larger West Philadelphia neighborhood (of which it is a part) and the city of West Philadelphia. Second, I subdivide University City into two areas to assess how the portion of the neighborhood within the PAS catchment area changed relative to the part of University City that was outside of the catchment area.

The study results show that University City did improve in the years following Penn’s investments. However, those changes were not uniform. As a whole, University City’s population changed significantly with an increase in the White and Asian populations and a decrease in the Black population during the WPI years (2000 to 2010). While University City’s socioeconomic indicators (poverty rate and median household income) were moderately better than the larger West Philadelphia neighborhood, they were still below the city of Philadelphia’s and only showed modest improvement during the WPI. Housing indicators (dwelling units, vacancy rate, and median home value), on the other hand, tightened significantly in University City in relation to the larger neighborhood and city.

The more dramatic neighborhood change occurred within University City, as the PAS catchment showed significant improvement across all indicators. The portion of the neighborhood served by a strong university-city partnership school became wealthier (real incomes increased roughly $10,000 between 2000 and 2010; the poverty rate fell five percentage points), more homogeneous (the White population increased by 44% between 2000 and 2010; the Black population decreased by 49%) and more attractive (median housing prices increased by $180,000 in ten years and vacancy rates dropped to 7.5%). Meanwhile, the rest of University City became more expensive during the WPI years (housing prices increased $193,000 and vacancy rates dropped 19 percentage points) and less diverse (the Black population decreased by a third; the White and Asian populations increased modestly). At the same time, the socioeconomic indicators continued to show an economically depressed area with poverty rates ten percentage points above the PAS area (and the city-wide rate) and stagnating incomes far below the PAS blocks.

These findings suggest that Penn did move the needle in University City. Its efforts added up to an attraction strategy, stabilizing the market and providing higher quality amenities to attract newcomers to the neighborhood. Yet, the implications of the WPI are not quite so clear. Penn’s investments were transformative in the area benefitting from the full force of the WPI—the presence of a high-quality school in the neighborhood in tandem with public safety, economic development, and housing investments appear to be a winning strategy. Yet, the rest of the neighborhood did not see the same socioeconomic improvement. Further, the structural shift in population throughout University City suggests that gentrification is an issue and displacement may be a real concern, fueled by a dramatically more expensive real estate market. Yes, the neighborhood revitalized; perhaps we should now be asking “revitalization for whom?”

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