Taking the Initiative

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The way Jack Shannon sees it, the recent $28 million University City Neighborhood Improvement Program put forward by Penn and Citizens Bank of Pennsylvania represents a “holistic approach” to revitalizing a sizeable chunk of West Philadelphia.

“Thanks to the efforts of the University, the community, and other committed partners, certain parts of University City have witnessed a positive transformation during the past several years,” says Shannon, Penn’s associate vice president for economic development. “That said, however, there are still significant challenges that remain in terms of continuing the rehabilitation and redevelopment of our community in a positive way.”

The initiative is designed to upgrade housing, expand business opportunities, weed out neighborhood blight, and generally improve the quality of life for residents of an area stretching all the way from 30th Street to 52nd Street, and from Haverford Avenue to the Schuylkill River.

Besides Penn and Citizens Bank, Shannon also cites the involvement of other “anchor institutions such as the University of the Sciences, Mercy Health System, and Drexel University, along with the supportive efforts of the University City District and local community-development corporations.”

The initiative was announced at an October press conference attended by President Judith Rodin (who initiated the early discussions with Citizens Bank), Philadelphia Mayor John Street, Citizens Bank Chair and CEO Stephen Steinour, and U.S. Representative Chaka Fattah GPU’86. 

Hailing Citizens Bank as a “new partner in support of West Philadelphia neighborhoods,” Rodin said that Penn looks “forward to more affordable housing and small-business development during the coming five years as a result of this extraordinary commitment.” Funding from the bank will go to community groups to buy and rehabilitate vacant and run-down properties ($10 million), a mortgage program that will provide up to 100-percent financing at slightly below market rates ($5 million), and the Citizens Bank Land Acquisition Pool and Home Repair Program ($1.5 million each).

With funding from a “combination of sources,” the initiative has also earmarked $10 million to provide financing to qualified small businesses and owner-occupied stores, mostly along the Lancaster Avenue and Baltimore Avenue commercial corridors. Some $250,000 will be used for public safety, neighborhood planning, and “Clean and Green” activities, and the final $50,000 will be used by the University City District to provide technical assistance for small businesses.

While there may be an “evolution as to what programs take top-priority status,” says Shannon, “regardless of what may be the order of the day, we will have sufficient resources to address it.”

While most of the past year has been spent getting the various aspects of the initiative in place and refining them—and establishing a “framework of benchmarks by which we will measure the program’s performance going forward”—Shannon says that “we will actively begin marketing the program much more aggressively after the first of the year.” In the meantime, “we are also getting to work on deals and opportunities as they present themselves.” 

On the whole, he says, “reaction has been positive. There is an enthusiasm for the program as a way of leveraging the investments that have already been made by the universities and others. In addition, there is a sense of energy around the table as the various stakeholders continue to discuss the ways they can work together with the bank, with the community, on exciting new projects in their areas.

“Ultimately,” he adds, “this is a multi-year program, which will be judged over time.”

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