The grand opening of Drexel University’s new Health Sciences building on Wednesday, Dec. 7 was marked by an unanticipated student rally. Outside of the newly-opened twelve-story building where the ribbon cutting ceremony occurred, students from the UC Townhomes coalition, Drexel Community for Justice and Drexel for PILOTs called out the university for their participation in the gentrification of West Philadelphia and the displacement of its long-time residents.
In 2014, Drexel and Wexford Science + Technology partnered to purchase the site after Philadelphia public high school University City High was closed and the land was up for grabs to developers. Located at 36th and Filbert streets, the Health Sciences building will now serve as the center for the College of Nursing and Health Professions, the College of Medicine and the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and Professional Studies.
Though the College of Nursing and Health Professions officially started using the building in the summer, the ceremony on Dec. 7 served as a way to bring together Drexel, Wexford and Ventas, a real estate investment trust, to formally celebrate the building’s opening.
This occasion sparked resistance from students and community members, many of whom are calling on the university to pay payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) and admit their role in the expansion of West Philly gentrification under the guise of urban renewal.
Lined up outside of the building holding signs and banners, organizers chanted phrases like “Hands off West Philly,” “Save the people’s townhomes,” and “John Fry you make this right.”
This conversation comes after months of community members and West Philly residents organizing to prevent the sale and demolition of the University City Townhomes, a 70-unit housing development on 39th and Market streets. On July 8, 2021, townhomes owner Brett Altman notified the Department of Housing and Urban Development that he would not be renewing the property’s federal tax subsidy and was planning to sell the property by July 2022. Originally built in 1983, the rental property has served as a source of affordable housing for West Philadelphia’s residents in the past few decades as the cost of living has dramatically increased in what is now called “University City” but once was considered the Black Bottom.
In the past year, the Save the UC Townhomes Coalition has gained nationwide traction and sparked a larger conversation about the role that universities play in gentrification through urban development strategies. While the University of Pennsylvania has been particularly under pressure from students and community members in the past few months, Drexel has mostly been able to stay out of the conversation–until now.
“John Fry has been leading the destruction of West Philly communities since the 90s. He came to Philly and was the Executive Vice President at Penn in ,” said student organizer Chelsea Martin at the rally, “Fry is the one who spearheaded the initiative that is now known as the University City District, which demolished the houses of thousands of Black Philadelphians who lived in the Black Bottom; which is the land that we are standing on today.”
According to a joint Instagram post by Drexel Students for Justice in Palestine and Drexel Community for Justice, over 300 students, staff, faculty and alumni have signed on to a statement for Drexel to support the preservation of the townhomes as of Nov. 10.
“Drexel’s expansion was a catalyst for urban renewal efforts in West Philadelphia and the Black Bottom. The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority invoked eminent domain to seize and bulldoze homes and businesses, clearing lots that were then sold to Drexel and Penn at well below their market value,” the statement says. “This is the time for Drexel University to demonstrate, through action, their commitments to antiracism by ensuring that UC Townhomes residents have access to a safe, healthy and stable housing environment.”
In an interview with The Triangle, student organizers from the Save the UC Townhomes Coalition, Drexel for Justice and Drexel for PILOTs discussed the university’s problematic relationship with West Philadelphia.
“Drexel is following this master plan that has been in place since the 60s. This project of so-called ‘urban renewal’ started in the 60s, and for most of these gentrification projects, they’ve gotten their way, but there have been points when the residents of West Philadelphia have fought back against it,” said third year film and television major Shane Mosley.
“Actually the new Health Sciences building used to be a high school and that high school, it wasn’t built out of the kindness of the developers’ heart, it was built because the community rallied and said ‘if you’re going to keep displacing people, the least you can do is build a school.’”
Mosley was referring to University City High School, a school that opened in 1972 and closed in 2013. Over the decades, the school’s academic performance declined due to a lack of adequate funding, eventually leading the School District of Philadelphia to sell the property along with 23 other schools as they were undergoing a financial crisis of their own.
“It was a school right by campus but it wasn’t receiving any financial help from Drexel and it sort of was left alone to suffer. Eventually it was shut down and Drexel came in and swept in and built the health sciences building,” Mosley said.
Second year medical student Hana Shapiro expects that the new Health Sciences building will attract thousands of more students to move into the area, which will cause living costs to rise and for the neighborhood to “flip” as previous residents can no longer afford to live in the area.
“The institution has completely separated itself from the people that it affects and that alienation is not something that we’ll stand for,” Shapiro said. “As students, if we are being forced to live in this area, we have an obligation and an imperative to be a part of that community. If we can’t help being here, then we must take the responsibility of taking care of those who have been here before us.”
According to the student organizers, one of the main contributions they would like to see from Drexel is for the university to pay PILOTs (payments in lieu of taxes).
“Because of Drexel’s nonprofit status, they don’t pay any taxes, despite getting so much money through endowments…They get so much money through tuition, room and board, parking fees, you know all that money it adds up, and none of it goes to the community. It just sort of goes to more gentrification projects, so if we actually force and put pressure on Drexel to make these payments, then a lot of areas that aren’t gentrified could actually get the resources they need instead of being underfunded, ignored and left to rot so that later Drexel and Penn can come in and redevelop it,” Mosley said.
Chelsea Martin would like for the university to make tangible commitments to community members and follow through with their mission about being a civically engaged university.
“Drexel University, if they’re saying all these things and standing in solidarity with the Black community, put your money where your mouth is and pay PILOTs and put that money into the preservation of the townhomes,” Martin said. “It’s the very least they could do.”