WHEN THE University City District (UCD) was being organized in 1997, then-Penn Executive Vice President John Fry said that planners decided against setting up a neighborhood- or business-improvement district that would have forced landowners to pay up.

"We wanted to do something that was more collaborative in spirit," said Fry, now Drexel's president. "We didn't want to force anyone to do something they didn't want to do."

Most improvement districts assess an additional tax of between 7 percent and 10 percent. Instead, Fry said, as founding chair of the UCD, he visited all of the institutions, major landlords and business owners in the area to seek voluntary contributions.

"We tried to convince them it was time we came together to do something like this because the neighborhood had taken a turn for the worse," Fry said.

Institutions like Penn, Drexel, the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and the University of the Sciences raised $4 million to help launch the University City District in 1997, which focused on cleaning streets and providing safety ambassadors.

"The fact that UCD from its start was a true partnership of anchor institutions, business owners and civic associations has been the single most important factor in our success," said Matt Bergheiser, UCD's executive director.

The UCD created the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, in 2010, to bridge the gap between local institutions and unemployed or underemployed area residents.

Wilhelmina Herbert, president of the Garden Court Community Association, said that representatives of neighborhood groups are invited to UCD's monthly meetings and that people from UCD usually attend meetings of the major neighborhood associations.

Herbert also pointed to a Penn program that began offering scholarships to low-income residents to attend the school before the UCD was set up.

Beverly Coleman, Temple University's assistant vice president for community relations and economic development, sits on the steering committee of the proposed North Central NID, in North Philadelphia, and said that Temple last year started a similar program to offer up to 25 annual four-year scholarships of $5,000 a year for students living in ZIP codes around Temple.

"It is a visible demonstration that Temple is committed to education for people who live in the surrounding communities," Coleman said.

Contact Valerie Russ at 215-854-5987 or russv@phillynews.com.