About a year ago, this paper ran a feature on Drexel tightening its restrictions on students living in off-campus housing. I’ll admit, since I was in charge, there was a bit of an ideological bent to it – I strongly believe in the right of students to choose housing which is appropriate for them, be it a dormitory, a student apartment, or a rowhouse.
Of course, there are some realities to look at here: students are frequently bad neighbors. They change their living arrangements frequently. They are transient residents; a plurality of us won’t stay in Philadelphia. They don’t have a lot of interest in the long-term, in short, and this is bad for neighborhoods.
Hence the coming of “university-approved housing” – the idea being, cram as many students into on-campus apartments and residence halls as possible. This keeps them out of Powelton Village or Spruce Hill or wherever, and ensures that professors who actually own homes there can sleep at night. It also discourages property owners from doing what the market demands – tearing down historic homes with long-term resident renters to build objectively more profitable stucco boxes to cram students in.
I’m about to graduate. (Hopefully). And I’ve decided I like my neighborhood, and I’d like to stay there, in Spruce Hill. I shop at Fresh Grocer. I vote at the technical high school across the street. I get cheesesteaks from New Style Pizza. I get beer from Local 44, or University City Beverage when I’m buying in quantity. I pay wage tax. I read West Philly Local. I complain about Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell. I maintain an herb garden on my roof deck, and this summer was looking to be the best harvest yet for my three-year-old hop vines. I’ve been in my 145 year-old rowhouse for four years, and the tenants downstairs, much longer.
I was served a notice recently that the house had been sold, and was to be demolished. We could stay for the duration of the lease, at least, but that was not much comfort – this year’s hop harvest was certainly ruined, and the prospect of finding good (or even equivalent) housing in the area was bleak.
The irony of all this was that the building had been sold to University Realty, a company which provides this “university-approved housing” which ought to prevent displacement of long-term residents. They intend to tear down my historic home with long-term resident renters to build an objectively more profitable stucco box to cram students in.
What an effective policy!
This particular stucco box will be a five-story 25-unit (all 3-bedroom) student tenement with tiny light wells and basically no windows except those which are mandated by the international building code. It will replace a 145-year-old pair of twins, which in total contain 10 units. (They are very large, old, grand houses.) The adjacent pair of twins — also 145 years old, most likely with the same 10 units — is going too. The pair of twins adjacent to that has already gone, and the 50-foot tall sheer windowless wood-stud and oriented strand board building looms overhead like a preview of the Trump administration’s crowning achievement.
In total, something like 50 long and medium-term residents are being displaced. We are also losing three of the oldest pairs of twins in West Philadelphia, one of which was formerly home to Oliver Christian Bosbyshell, the first man to be wounded for the Union cause in the Civil War, and 4th Superintendent of the Philadelphia Mint, at which job he supervised the striking of the Isabella Quarter, which was almost the first coin to be designed by a woman. (Disagreements over Isabella’s crown resulted in another design being picked late in the process.)
We are also losing three oaks, which date from the same era, several residents’ herb gardens and six curb parking spaces on Chestnut Street.
In return we get 225 bedrooms, three curb-cuts, 24 accessory parking spots and some of the most genuinely ugly architecture to grace West Philadelphia, if we look at University Realty’s existing portfolio as a model. The only comfort is that they don’t appear to be designed to last – oriented strand board (literally industrial papier-mache) is not notable for its resistance to fire, nor for its resistance to water when the sprinkler system goes off to stop said fire. I give them 20 years, at most. Maybe quality development will replace them in 2036 – I hope to still be in the neighborhood to see it.
“University-approved housing” was supposed to be a means for the University to have leverage over where students live, for the betterment of communities around Drexel. If I, a resident of Spruce Hill, am being displaced by “university-approved housing,” then these policies have failed spectacularly.
If, even worse, these new developments are not only displacing residents, but are incredibly low-quality and anti-urban, as are typical of University Realty’s portfolio, then it’s almost as though these policies never existed in the first place.
Noted urbanist Jane Jacob’s 100th birthday was last week – you may have noticed the Google doodle. Our university’s President teaches a class on her book, the Death and Life of Great American Cities, which I take as tantamount to an endorsement of her planning philosophy. (Chapters include “The need for old buildings”, “The need for small blocks”, “The need for primary mixed uses”, “Erosion of cities or attrition of automobiles” — just to give the layman an idea) – and these are features notably absent from University Realty’s new Chestnut Street project. When our “university-approved housing” partners don’t give even a tacit nod to this philosophy I think we ought to be doing a better job at choosing who we’re partnering with.
It’s time to expect our “university-approved housing” partners to do more for the appearance, upkeep and long-term viability of the neighborhoods they build in or operate out of – or at the very least, expect them not to destroy those neighborhoods.