Speaking Out

Penn's Westward Planning

President Rodin and her associates should be commended for tackling the challenging job of the Campus Master Plan. A dynamic view of planning, one that recognizes the changing character of the University's needs and of the surrounding community, is central to Rodin's thinking.

Despite the best intentions, in my view, the proposed plan is sadly lacking from that perspective. The proposed development of the campus fails to take into account the University's most serious current problem: the wave of crime that reflects the University's inadequate integration to the poor areas of West Philadelphia. Unless we are to be a disembodied presence there, separated from it by walls, we must seek to build the West Philadelphia community and to integrate the western edges of the campus into it.

Today's need is not "...to visibly link Center City and West Philadelphia, stressing the importance of the Schuylkill River as the University's Eastern boundary" (Almanac, November 19/26). Frankly, I can't imagine what that statement can possibly mean. Center City is a long way away, separated from us not only by the river, but by the expressway and railway tracks. The University is unavoidably a part of West Philadelphia. That is precisely the problem. If there is to be a visible linkage, it must be with West Philadelphia.

The plan proposes to expand the campus to the East and South. To the North and West the target is only enhancement. This strategy follows the path of least resistance, using land that is vacant or becoming vacant to the East or South. That may indeed be the way to avoid controversy: no need to deal with community groups, no need to pay high prices for occupied land. But is it the wisest? In the North, East and South, there are natural boundaries to the campus. Our problem lies to the West.

A cursory look at the map published in the Inquirer suggests that the University's crime problem is largely to the West, along 40th Street and then along the residential blocks in a southwesterly direction. We may never be able fully to explain the reasons for the crime wave nor to do away with crime entirely. But I believe it is caused by the rapid deterioration of economic and social conditions in West Philadelphia. People lacking in economic opportunity have little choice but to exploit the middle-class population of students, staff, faculty, and other residents. As crime increases, faculty and students have left the area for Center City and the suburbs. Street life has diminished, especially at night. The University's Escort Service takes still more people off the street. The housing stock deteriorates. Streets are not cleaned properly. Property values decline. Those of us who live in West Philadelphia have witnessed this progressive deterioration and see no end to it unless some action is taken. There is no lack of police--we hear the sirens every night! But added police and improved street lighting go only a little way to solve the underlying economic and social problems. The University is damaged--directly in terms of losses to students and faculty, and the murder of a researcher! More generally, the University is seen as a dangerous place to be avoided--with the result a 10% decline in early admission applications.

What can be done about it? We can turn the University to the East and to the South as the Master Plan proposes. We can rely on still more police or even build a wall around the University as was suggested to me by an earlier University provost--in jest, I hope! The message of the Master Plan to faculty and staff is "move to Center City."

What ever happened to older schemes to expand the westward reach of the University and to use this expansion to upgrade the West Philadelphia community? To create a lively middle-class community this area? Only a multipronged plan will work. We need to infiltrate University life into the community by:

Building the University's links to West Philadelphia calls for very different view than the Master Plan. Thoughtful planning and financial encouragement could extend safe, busy treelined streets from the main campus like branches--President Rodin speaks of "pathways" into the surrounding community. Such an approach will cost lots of money, but it is a necessary investment, unless the University is to be depreciated and engulfed by its declining neighborhood.

-- F. Gerard Adams
Professor of Economics

Response to Dr. Adams

In his thoughtful letter on the University's campus master planning efforts, Professor Adams raises questions about the University's plans to expand the campus to the east while enhancing the community to the west. Planning for the future of the Penn campus requires the University to choose the best possible courses of action in all areas surrounding our campus. We do not believe that potential expansion to the east entails the passive role Professor Adams fears for Penn's efforts to enhance the vital neighborhoods to the west in which he and so many of our faculty, students and staff have made their homes.

The University's efforts to enhance the residential neighborhoods and commercial areas west of campus will remain a major and continuing priority, one that will require Penn to play a complex role in neighborhood preservation and development. In the past Penn, like many urban universities, aggressively expanded into residential areas, largely to the west, and the expansion was not always for the best. Going forward, we must remember that stability and improvement in the residential neighborhoods near our campus will require more multi-faceted efforts than unilateral expansion. It is for this reason that we have used the term enhancement, rather than expansion, to describe our western strategies.

A number of the enhancements we intend to make will be those mentioned by Professor Adams. They include revitalization of commercial and residential markets in West Philadelphia, improvement of school choices, and cleaner and safer streets. Penn cannot be, and is not, the only stakeholder in these efforts, but Penn will be a strategic, pro-active and important player.

To this end, we have redoubled efforts to revitalize the University's commercial real estate in West Philadelphia with a goal of increasing quality and choice. We are collaborating with other local institutions to establish a safe and clean "special services district" in University City. We are working with neighborhood property owners to light up West Philadelphia after dark. And we are developing a strategic plan for the other key investments that Penn must make to enhance the attractiveness of our community. With focus and sustained commitment, these actions will make our West Philadelphia neighborhood a safer, cleaner and more attractive place for all of our students, faculty, staff and neighbors.

At the same time, it is a fact today that the largest available properties that Penn could develop without disrupting existing neighborhoods--for potential recreational facilities, academic and institutional facilities--lie to the east. Changes in land use in this area now present Penn with opportunities to acquire and develop its campus in a dramatic fashion over the next 20 years. These are opportunities we should not ignore.

In addition, linking Penn more successfully with Center City serves our institution. Professor Adams dislikes this idea and suggests that Center City is "a long way away," yet thousands of our students, faculty and staff live there, at least in part, because of its proximity to campus. Indeed, part of the appeal of our campus is its ready access to the attractive commercial, cultural and residential opportunities of downtown Philadelphia. Rather than ignore this, we should pay attention to the recent improvements that have made Center City an increasing draw high quality housing, good retail choices and a safe and clean environment. And we should--and we will--do everything we can to make University City just as appealing in both its residential and its commercial areas.

-- Judith Rodin, President


Volume 43 Number 17
January 14, 1997

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