Photograph of Drexel’s Main Building, a four-story brick structure with terra cotta reliefs and sculptures Photograph of two 8-story buildings with commercial space on the ground floor and residences on the upper floors. A residential tower of approximately 20 stories is attached to one of the mixed-use buildings. Photograph of 11 university students and local youth standing in a circle and holding their hands in the air. Photograph of a dozen volunteers planting a tree and performing other tasks on the sidewalk of a Philadelphia residential street. Photograph of 10 people posed in front of a mural with the words “The William Penn Foundation.”

 

Home >Case Studies >Drexel University and West Philadelphia: Growing Together

 

Drexel University and West Philadelphia: Growing Together

 

Drexel University is dedicated to building strong partnerships with communities in West Philadelphia. Since taking over as president of the university, John A. Fry has worked to ensure that civic engagement and respect for the needs of Drexel’s neighbors are among the university’s core principles. Drexel has worked with local organizations and civic groups to improve employment, education, health, safety, and housing conditions in the neighborhoods near the university to benefit both area residents and the institution. The university has also been actively engaged in building partnerships with federal entities — including HUD — as a means of garnering national support for its neighboring communities. These efforts include submitting a Choice Neighborhoods plan and attaining a Promise Zone designation.

Engaging Neighbors

Drexel is surrounded by several neighborhoods encompassing eight census tracts. With a population of 35,300, the area has an average poverty rate of 50.8 percent with one census tract reaching 80 percent, compared with an average poverty rate of 26.9 percent for Philadelphia as a whole. Residents of this section of West Philadelphia have a low rate of educational attainment, even when counting Drexel students; at least 20 percent of the population in 7 of the census tracts lack a high school diploma. In addition to an unemployment rate of 13.6 percent and a long-term housing vacancy rate of 14.5 percent, the community had a Part I crime rate of about 472 per 10,000 people in 2012. Despite these challenges, the area’s proximity to the Philadelphia Zoo, Fairmount Park, public transit options, and two major universities offers the potential for improved employment opportunity and quality of life. In addition, several local organizations and community associations are dedicated to the success of their neighborhoods. Recognizing the primacy of its role in addressing these challenges and helping to build on the opportunities, Drexel University has become actively involved in supporting the area’s success.

In his 2010 convocation speech, Fry called for comprehensive action to address these community issues. “[M]y aspiration for Drexel University,” said Fry, “is for it to be the most civically engaged university in the United States, across all three dimensions of engagement: academic, student and employee volunteerism, and institutionally supported neighborhood investment.” In 2011, Fry ensured that his vision would be implemented and ingrained in the university’s operations by hiring Lucy Kerman as the first vice provost for university and community partnerships — a cabinet-level position — and creating a committee on the board of trustees that focuses on the university’s community work.

With these institutional structures in place, Drexel needed to build trust in the community and demonstrate that the university would not overpower other stakeholders. For example, Drexel participated in the existing planning efforts of West Philadelphia neighborhoods including Mantua, a neighborhood of 6,200 residents north of the university campus, rather than develop its own revitalization plans. The Philadelphia Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) facilitated the planning process to ensure that the university, civic groups, and community development organizations collaborated as equals. “Keeping the table balanced was an ongoing exercise,” observes Andrew Frishkoff, executive director of Philadelphia LISC. “Part of it was to make sure the agenda setting was mutual and part of it was to understand how resources could most effectively create community benefit.”

Choice Neighborhoods

In 2011, the Mantua planning effort was funded by a $250,000 HUD Choice Neighborhoods Planning Grant to the nonprofit owner of the Mt. Vernon Apartments, a 125-unit affordable housing development built in 1978 with HUD Section 236 funds. Drexel joined a team tasked with identifying neighborhood assets, generating a community dialogue about potential improvements, and developing an action plan. “We Are Mantua!” — the resulting transformation plan — sets community goals for the revitalization of the Mt. Vernon Apartments, as well as health and wellness, safety, education, physical, and aesthetic improvements for the surrounding area. One outcome of the plan has been the awarding of a Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation grant from the U.S. Department of Justice for implementation.

Promise Zone

Drexel’s work with the Mantua planning process, along with the relationships it has built with leaders in other neighborhoods, helped Drexel establish trust within the broader community. This trust enabled Drexel and its allies to submit an application for the federal government’s Promise Zone initiative, and in early 2014, a two-square-mile, multi-neighborhood area of West Philadelphia was named one of the first five Promise Zones.

The Promise Zone designation provides increased competitiveness for federal funding. According to Kerman, the designation also serves as a platform for the area’s anchor institutions to improve coordination and increase contracting and employment opportunities for local residents. Through the Promise Zone framework, city and community partners are focused on enhancing educational opportunities, addressing crime, improving housing, and attracting employment and business opportunities. A committee has been established to address each of the four policy areas; Drexel is a member of all the committees and, with the school district, serves as a co-leader of the educational opportunities committee. The education committee is working to secure resources for a cradle-to-career pipeline to ensure student success.

By creating a pipeline, Kerman and Drexel hope that more neighborhood students will become eligible for admission to the university and compete for the Drexel Liberty Scholars program, which awards full scholarships to the university to 50 Philadelphia high school graduates each year. To further support career attainment, the Promise Zone is also focused on attracting more business activity to West Philadelphia.

Meeting Community Needs

In addition to participating in these programs and partnerships, Drexel is providing services that integrate with existing efforts in surrounding communities. The recently opened Dana and David Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships is an extension of the campus in which schools within the university provide services and engage residents through service learning programs. Drexel is also dedicated to developing its campus in a way that serves both its students and existing residents. One recent example, which opened in 2013, is Chestnut Square, a $97.6 million mixed-use development that includes 25,000 square feet of retail space and 200 two-, three-, and four-bedroom student apartments.

Although Chestnut Square brought construction and retail jobs to the area, these jobs did not immediately result in expanded opportunities for local residents. Chestnut Square demonstrated to the university the importance of holding developers and contractors accountable for hiring local residents. As a result of this lesson, Drexel is committed to ensuring that new developments and renovations on its campus translate into jobs for local residents. The university’s development contracts now have targets for inclusion based on both diversity and local residence.

Building a Mutual Future

The joint planning and development by Drexel and its partners have helped ensure that the community receives the services and opportunities it needs, but they also help Drexel remain competitive as an educational institution. The university’s focus on attracting new businesses to West Philadelphia is aimed at providing Drexel students with service learning opportunities that will give them real-world experience. Drexel is also creating housing opportunities and schools in its surrounding neighborhoods to encourage faculty and staff to live closer to campus. The university also believes its own interests are well served when area residents can continue to afford housing in the neighborhood and benefit from the changes around them. Partnerships have been developed with local community development corporations and organizations such as Philadelphia LISC, Habitat for Humanity, and Rebuilding Together Philadelphia to make sure that the changes in the neighborhood benefit both the residents and Drexel University.

Source:

John A. Fry. 2010. “2010 Convocation,” (5 October). Accessed 13 January 2015; Interview with Lucy Kerman, vice provost for university and community partnerships at Drexel University, 30 January 2015.

×

Source:

Shared Prosperity Philadelphia. n.d. “Philadelphia Promise Zone Application,” 1–3. Accessed 15 January 2015; Interview with Lucy Kerman, vice provost for university and community partnerships at Drexel University, 30 January 2015.

×

Source:

John A. Fry. 2010. “2010 Convocation,” (5 October). Accessed 13 January 2015; Interview with Lucy Kerman, 30 January 2015.

×

Source:

Interview with Lucy Kerman, 30 January 2015; Interview with Andrew Frishkoff, 20 March 2015.

×

Source:

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. n.d. “Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Choice Neighborhoods Grantee.” Accessed 13 January 2015; Interview with Lucy Kerman, 30 January 2015; Local Initiatives Support Corporation. n.d. “Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Program: Site Snapshot: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.” Accessed 20 January 2015.

×

Source:

Interview with Lucy Kerman, 30 January 2015.

×

Source:

Interview with Lucy Kerman, 30 January 2015; Shared Prosperity Philadelphia. n.d. "Philadelphia Promise Zone Application,” 15. Accessed 15 January 2015.

×

Source:

Interview with Lucy Kerman, 30 January 2015; Shared Prosperity Philadelphia. n.d. "Philadelphia Promise Zone Application,” 15. Accessed 15 January 2015.

×

Source:

Interview with Lucy Kerman, 30 January 2015; Drexel University Office of University and Community Partnerships. n.d. “Neighborhood Initiatives.” Accessed 13 January 2015; Niki Giankaris. 2012. “Drexel and American Campus Communities to Break Ground on $97.6 Million Mixed-Use Development.” Drexel Now (20 February). Accessed 13 January 2015; MSC University. n.d. “Chestnut Square.” Accessed 3 February 2015; Robert A.M. Stern Architects. 2015. “Chestnut Square.” Accessed 13 January 2015.

×

Source:

Interview with Lucy Kerman, 30 January 2015.

×

Source:

John A. Fry. 2010. “2010 Convocation,” (5 October). Accessed 13 January 2015; Interview with Lucy Kerman, 30 January 2015.

×