20 Years, 20 Stories: Meet the Original and Current Leaders of UCD

May 09, 2017 2 months ago

2017 is the 20th anniversary of University City District. To commemorate this milestone, we are publishing 20 Stories, 20 Years, a rich compilation of the ways in which UCD has impacted the neighborhood through our work, told by the people who have made University City the vibrant, healthy and diverse community it is today. 

On a sunny March morning we traveled to Center City to bring together bookends of University City District’s leadership to discuss the organization, the neighborhood, and how their efforts and visions shaped UCD’s local impact. These men are Paul Steinke, UCD’s first executive director, and Matt Bergheiser, UCD’s current president, who joined the organization in 2009. 

“I can’t believe it’s twenty years,” Paul says. The current Executive Director at the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia is tall, thin, and serious; he wastes few words when explaining his path to UCD and his role in getting the fledgling organization off the ground. 

UCD was not Paul’s first experience with a neighborhood district. He served as Center City District (CCD)’s finance director when the organization formed in 1991. Around 1995, leaders from the University of Pennsylvania approached CCD because they were interested in replicating the CCD model across the Schuylkill River in University City. Once the original board – comprised of representatives from Penn, Drexel, Amtrak, and others – finalized plans to start the organization, they asked Paul to serve as UCD’s first executive director. He accepted and began in August of 1997.

“When I was hired, we operated out of the 7th floor of the Franklin Building,” Paul says, referring to an administrative building on Penn’s campus. “My first office was literally a repurposed janitor’s closet.” The partners all felt a sense of urgency to start the programs as quickly as possible, and although Paul was UCD’s only full-time staff member, he was immediately charged with replicating CCD’s successful on-street cleaning and safety services. 

“There was the early 90s real estate recession,” Paul explains, “And then several high profile crimes that were front page news, even national news. That was the environment we [UCD] were created in. And that was a challenge.” The biggest challenge according to Paul, however, was establishing the legitimacy of the organization. “University City is full of proud neighborhoods...Spruce Hill, Powelton Village, Cedar Park.” He says UCD had to win over the neighborhood groups.

The easiest way to do that was through results. “Trash, graffiti, and crime all started to go down right away…A lot of people were glad to see something finally being done to try to reverse the neighborhood’s decline. We quickly found allies out in the neighborhood.”
 
After the clean and safe programs were staffed with safety ambassadors and cleaning crews, UCD turned to promoting the district. The organization launched a Go West series that occurred every third Thursday, bringing together local restaurants and art organizations to showcase the best of the neighborhood. The series garnered a lot of attention. “The media really responded enthusiastically to good news coming out of West Philadelphia,” Paul explains. 

Next up was finding UCD a new office. Paul believed the organization would gain more credibility in a more central location. He set his sights on a bricked-over, graffiti-covered space on the 3900 block of Chestnut that someone else might have ignored; he was certain that the large building and adjacent vacant bar would be a perfect center of operations for UCD and a police substation. With a capital campaign and some help from Penn, the team cut the ribbon on UCD’s new headquarters at 3940 Chestnut in April 1999. Paul considers the acquisition of the office on the 40th Street corridor as a high point of his time at UCD.

As Paul became comfortable in his role, he began thinking about moving to University City. “As time went on and I started to get to know the neighborhood better, and was seeing the opportunity to live there—the kinds of houses there are, and the neighborhoods—I became intrigued.” He had to convince his now-husband David – who attended Penn in an era when students rarely crossed west of 40th Street – but Paul persuaded him, with the help of the “University City Saturday” event in which interested homebuyers toured different houses. While Paul moved on from UCD in 2001 to become the general manager of Reading Terminal Market, the couple still lives in the original house they purchased in Garden Court, with assistance from Penn.   

As Paul Steinke was building the foundations of University City District, the man who would eventually accelerate its growth was about to move to Philadelphia. Matt Bergheiser had been accepted to the Wharton School, and his welcome materials included a brochure from a student group detailing the “inside scoop” on University City. Matt remembers the materials cautioning students to never go west of 40th Street, and saying “lots of tough things about University City.”

“There was a very real public safety crisis in the neighborhood at that time,” Matt says, “but at the same time, there was this amazing, beautiful, dynamic, and diverse neighborhood behind it. As I began to venture into the neighborhood and into the city, you could see that clearly.”

After graduating from Wharton, Matt steeped himself in the community while working at The Enterprise Center, the economic development organization at 46th and Market. He moved on to focus on  neighborhood improvement at the Trenton Downtown Association, and then public space and workforce development at The Knight Foundation. In 2009, three years into his role with the Knight Foundation, everything changed with two phone calls. 

University City District was searching for a new executive director. “I got two phone calls, basically on the same day,” Matt says. “One was from my friend Della Clark at The Enterprise Center, who was my old boss and was on the UCD board. She said, ‘This role is opening up and I think you’d be perfect at it.’ Then I got a call from a search firm the same day saying, ‘This role is opening up and we’d love to talk to you about it.’

“I frankly wasn’t looking for a job, so it had to be the perfect opportunity,” Matt says. “As I got to know and understand the organization, got to know some of the board members through the process, got to understand the compelling and unique opportunity that University City as a place presented, I got more and more excited about it.” 

On July 1st, 2009, Matt became the organization’s fourth executive director. “UCD felt like the place I was destined to be in my career,” he says. His experiences in public space, community improvement, and workforce development matched the work UCD had started to think about tackling more holistically. “At the time I came on board, the stars were all aligned to bring all that work together, to build on everything that had happened here, and to think big about some new issues as the economy and the neighborhood evolved.”

“The organization at its heart was still about clean and safe, partnerships, and about community and institutions and businesses coming together. We’re able to leverage those partnerships, and the trust that was built over time, for different kinds of activities.” It didn’t take long to see Matt’s impact. Within his first two years, UCD had launched its flagship space, The Porch at 30th Street Station; its job training program, the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative; and Philadelphia’s first Parklet program, among other things. 

Reflecting on UCD’s formation and early days, Matt says, “In 1997 there was a hope and a dream that you could build on what the institutions were doing, and you could build a dynamic neighborhood economy that had ramifications and ripple effects for the entire region. The idea was to make this a neighborhood of choice. By every objective measure that’s been a success. This is one of the great neighborhoods, not just in the city and region, but that you can find anywhere.”

Matt believes that the UCD of 2017 has been built on the successes of those who came before. When people marvel at the complex things UCD has accomplished, like the LUCY bus program (another Paul Steinke accomplishment), or the forthcoming Trolley Portal Gardens, he says, “It’s all about partnership, it’s all about community, and it’s all about trust. It’s about the institutions trusting each other and a neutral partner.” He continues, “That trust came 20 years ago through clean and safe, and shared transit, and the revitalization of commercial corridors. Everything that’s come after used it as a building block.”

Paul sees a neighborhood transformed from the one he first discovered in 1997. He says you can see the changes clearly: “In terms of people on the street, on Baltimore Avenue, walking their dog, going to dinner on Baltimore or Lancaster Avenue. Neighborhood amenities continue to improve - more restaurants, more cafes, more shopping opportunities on the main avenues.” 

This transformation is occurring all across the district, and UCD has had to evolve along with the neighborhood, doing more to ‘Change Places and Change Lives,’ as is the organization’s tagline. “’Changing places and changing lives’ in 1997 might have meant something very different,” Matt says. “In 2017, it’s about a few things: ensuring the civic infrastructure, the streets, the public space, are as dynamic and beautiful as the buildings rising around us. It’s about the economic dividends of this explosion of growth being widely distributed, and that’s what the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative is all about. And on both of these fronts and on many others we could not have a better foundation because we’ve got amazing, progressive partners who care about these issues, who understand their importance, and who are looking for a vehicle or an intermediary like UCD who can enact this kind of change. I think that’s how we can succeed.”

Stay tuned for more stories throughout the year on how University City District has impacted the neighborhood over its twenty year history. 

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.