As Drexel’s Campus Master Plan plows forward, many difficult questions linger over the fate of a prominently visible sign of failed urban development in our backyard. The School District of Philadelphia closed University City High School at the end of the 2012-13 school year due to a staggering budget shortfall. The school district is now working with city officials to sell or reuse the school property, and Drexel is among the potential buyers with the intentions of possibly donating the school back to the school district.
The school was marked by violence throughout its history. After displacing a whole neighborhood, it opened with a class of only a few hundred, none of whom came from the displaced neighborhood. Community action opened the school to more local residents, but it soon fell into a cycle of racial violence and gang-related crime. The school was not a success, in short.
This leaves a massive parcel open for development here in West Philadelphia, one which has been appraised at an insultingly low price: $23 million, according to the Office of Property Assessment. This is a parcel that could house thousands of people, one that could contain an entire small college campus, selling for less than a few expensive suburban homes. According to a previous article published, it seems that Drexel may decide to purchase the property from the district and donate the building and property right back to them as part of the City Council’s plan to raise money for the district and keep schools open.
Given the parcel’s history and the sudden closure of 23 Philadelphia public schools, Drexel would be making a major contribution to Philadelphia by covering part of the $50 million that Mayor Michael Nutter borrowed out of the city’s budget to open public schools for the 2013-14 school year.
Drexel has a strong tradition of expansion at the expense of the surrounding neighborhoods. The north end of campus drove a wedge into Powelton Village, slicing east from west. Students took over the local housing stock, and home ownership plummeted. The University owes it to the community to keep some educational functions in the area. The neighborhood may not need a 3,000-student high school any longer (the last class weighed in at a whopping 637 students), but it doesn’t need to send its kids 20 blocks away for school, either.
We hope that if Drexel does invest in the property, it is put to good use for the community. Of course, there is a real possibility that the University City Science Center, the University of Pennsylvania or Penn Presbyterian Medical Center — all forces that also have a history of expansion at the expense of the area — could buy up the property instead. If this were to occur, it is unknown whether the neighborhood would receive a new school.
Drexel has a unique opportunity to take this land and make something positive out of it, but this can only occur if it is willing to invest in the neighborhood. The site of UCHS should not become just residences or academic buildings or just a hodgepodge of “market-oriented mixed-use developments.” It should be community oriented, too.
It should, in short, have a new school building. The community deserves a new University City High School, one that doesn’t sort of look like a prison, isn’t oversized, and educates students from the surrounding neighborhood effectively and empathetically. It’s the least that Drexel, and the city, can do.