University City: Organization Has Contributed to Neighborhood’s Growth

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Philadelphia Neighborhoods
A Publication of Temple University's Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab

by By Joel Mason Gaines and Megan Matuzak

Over the past 15 years, the landscape of University City has changed. The neighborhood has gone from an area of abandoned buildings and empty lots to one that is thriving with new businesses and residents. City planners have revisited and reshaped public spaces, like pedestrian plazas, service parking lots and SEPTA stops. Now the neighborhood has become one of the hotshot destinations for locals and tourists to go to, with new bars and gourmet restaurants drawing crowds even on weekdays. University City District has been a large part of those conversations, which have increased the collaborative power of the partnerships, neighborhoods and institutions in the University City area.

Mark Christman of University City District has seen firsthand how the neighborhood has changed over the years. “We are about making University City a world class neighborhood that already has world class institutions,” Mark Christman, communications manager for University City District, observed. “We have to bring all of the key partners and all of the brain power together to elevate the neighborhood and continually improve it.”

University City District is an organization that focuses on serving the community with cleaning, safety and revitalization services. Services such as graffiti cleanup and street sweeping are made possible through the organization’s partnerships with various institutions in the community. In conjunction with the Philadelphia police, University City District provides collaborative safety services like walking escorts and bicycle patrols.

A popular project for Christman and the rest of University City District is creating well-lighted areas, especially near SEPTA stops along the El and trolley lines. Better lighting for those areas in particular provide a sense of safety for all pedestrians, tourists and business owners. The lighting also promotes the area as an attractive place to be for target groups like entrepreneurs and graduating students of the local universities.

University City District also provides a platform for a line of communication and collaboration between the neighborhoods and institutions where they can work together toward a cleaner community. University of Pennsylvania has worked side by side with the University City District to make the campus greener and build an educative relationship with the streets that surround the university.

“Sustainable living is an important theme in University City, from the urban farms to doing your own canning to making your homes more energy efficient,” Christman said. “We bring in workshops that teach people how to live sustainably.”

University City District's office was busy, as they managed safety, cleaning, and business revitalization projects. Despite economic turmoil, both locally and nationally, business and population continue to grow in University City. Part of Christman’s job, along with the organization as a whole, is to promote growth by attracting businesses to the area. Small businesses continue to pop up and flourish, which contributes to a fruitful employment density for University City, as recorded by the United States Census as of 2011. Larger businesses attracted to the area, like two Iron Chef Restaurants on 40th Street, have also created opportunities for the area in the cultural and job markets.

University City District also plans events that enrich the cultural diversities of the neighborhoods. The Rotunda and University City District have enjoyed a partnership where concerts featuring myriad musical talents entertain the active community.

“Many of the presidents of civic associations sit on our board, all of which play key roles zoning and decision-making for their neighborhoods,” Christman said. “We think it is critical of our work and the work of the institutions to make sure that they are part of the discussions. In some ways their thoughts drive our conversations.”

40th street has changed from a neighborhood fringe area to a thriving corridor. The residents of University City have lived through the changes in their neighborhoods. A constant open line of communication serves not only the new residents, but the old as well. Civic associations stand on the board of University City District to represent the interests of their residents, which allows the intentions of each project to be more transparent and efficient.

University City District has planted itself in the foundation of University City. Entrepreneurial and scientific opportunities change perceptions of the community and decrease the brain drain of the graduating portion of a vivacious student population. Sustainability, work force development and rethinking public spaces have all worked towards the organization’s focus on clean and safe services.

University City District functions as a mechanism in the University City community that continually plans to elevate the conversations happening locally. With the eye on the prize, communications between the institutions, partnerships, and neighborhoods give control to many forces to the evolution of University City.

“We are communicating to a variety of constituencies, we are offering services and value to all the different constituencies. Whether it is landlords, or homeowners, or students or institutions or even visitors and tourists,” Christman said.

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