PHILADELPHIA BUSINESS JOURNAL • University City: The not-so-secret sauce for business-community partnerships

Thursday, November 30, 2017


Originally published by Philadelphia Business Journal

University City: The not-so-secret sauce for business-community partnerships

In 1997, West Philadelphia’s anchor institution leaders, real estate developers and community members came together to begin a new organization. They endeavored to address an urgent crisis of neighborhood disinvestment, while endowing the nascent group with ample flexibility to someday steward the hoped-for consequences of growth. 

Spoiler alert: It worked.

As University City District (UCD) celebrates its twentieth anniversary this month, the area it serves bursts with activity that not even the visionary founders could have anticipated: $2.1 billion of real estate investment over the past two years; $1 billion in annual R&D expenditures; and 80,000 jobs concentrated in two square miles. UCD’s role in this emerging boomtown is to invest in the shared infrastructure, both literal and figurative, of a successful place through the foundational infrastructure of clean and safe streets; the commercial infrastructure that supports neighborhood businesses; the civic infrastructure which shapes the commons – public spaces and sidewalks – to be as dynamic and lively as the new metropolis rising around it; and, increasingly, a 21st century opportunity infrastructure to ensure that the benefits of growth accrue broadly to neighboring communities.

It is a partnership and a model that has not only thrived in Philadelphia over the years, but has caught the attention of anchor institution communities around the country. UCD succeeds because of three bedrock principles. It is collaborative. It is fluid. And it is inclusive.

The first tenet, collaboration, is easy to tout but typically difficult to put into practice. At UCD, our founders codified a special partnership through a board structure in which the biggest and most impactful institutions – Penn, Drexel, CHOP, University of the Sciences – share governance with members of each of the five residential civic associations in University City.  And each entity – whether the largest health system or the smallest neighborhood group – has one vote on how to invest in our shared community. Further, unlike almost all organizations that operate on this business improvement district model, UCD is voluntary. There is no compulsory real estate tax to finance the work, but rather a commitment year over year to combine resources, to reaffirm partnership and to persuade the neighborhood’s growing cohort of new commercial investors to join forces with UCD’s members. 

Second, UCD is fluid and nimble in ways that have allowed it to evolve with the neighborhood around it. A partnership initially grounded in the challenges of 1997 has morphed into a collaboration driven by the opportunities of today and tomorrow. As universities and health systems grew in all directions, serving as true anchors for the region’s economy, UCD has grown with them, extending its services northward and eastward, and partnering with colleagues at Center City District to ensure that the prosperity of Philadelphia’s central business district is undeterred by that imaginary barrier over the Schuylkill River. Our approaches have changed as well. Responding to a burgeoning University City workforce and a growing millennial population seeking green and social places, UCD entered the public space-building business and created The Porch at 30th Street Station and the forthcoming 40th Street Trolley Portal Gardens. And when, despite the success of the University City real estate market, scores of properties remained stuck in disrepair and abandonment, UCD partnered with community members and the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections to create Project Rehab, bringing 121 residential units back to productive use and turning deserted houses into homes.

Finally, UCD and its constituent partners have worked to redefine what it means to invest in a place by investing in its residents. While breakaway economic growth characterizes one part of our community, 81,000 people live in poverty in our five neighboring zip codes. UCD’s West Philadelphia Skills Initiative is a big bet on reversing that course. Connecting unemployed neighborhood residents with major employers seeking talent, the approach involves deep collaboration with employers to identify their needs in order to recruit and prepare prospective hires. The average West Philadelphian who walks through our doors has been unemployed for 62 weeks, yet University City institutions hire 93% of our graduates and have now paid $15.4 million in wages to program participants over time. Most importantly, they bring dedicated professionals into the workforce, proving that sometimes an open door of opportunity is all it takes to demonstrate indomitable talents. 

University City District began twenty years ago as an idea. With two decades of perspective, it can be said that University City itself is driven by a powerful idea: the notion that density, diversity, proximity, vibrancy and knowledge combine to shape a neighborhood with magical possibilities for growth and innovation. And, increasingly, both University City and University City District are shaped by the belief that economic opportunity must be woven into the DNA of economic growth.   As University City District celebrates the past, it honors these convictions and its organizational canons of partnership, nimbleness and inclusivity. And a neighborhood that has always been focused on the future is grounded in these same virtues and, thus, well positioned to lead the way.

Matt Bergheiser is president of University City District. He can be reached at (215) 243-0555 or [email protected].