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Omar Blaik

Real Estate Developer, U3 Ventures

STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
STEVEN M. FALK / Staff PhotographerRead more

Omar Blaik was the real estate development and planning visionary behind reinvention of the University of Pennsylvania campus, Walnut Street, 40th Street and the West Bank complex, all in West Philadelphia.

He also had a hand in developing the Penn Alexander School - the collaboration between Penn, the city school district and the teachers' union - whose "catchment area" has become a hot draw in Philly real estate.

Born and educated in Cairo, Egypt, he is now a consultant to urban colleges around the United States that are looking to redevelop the town-gown boundaries of their campuses.

His clients include Harvard University, Howard University and the University of Chicago, plus Temple University and Thomas Jefferson University at home. Blaik also once advised Philadelphia Media Holdings L.L.C., which owns The Inquirer, Daily News and

His vision for the regional economy 10 years from now:

A buoyant cosmopolis, with colleges' driving growth.

"We, as a country, are getting more sophisticated. If you think of America as a young country, we have lived in cities for 200 years. There are Europeans and Asians and Middle Easterners who have lived in cities for thousands of years.

"When you talk to the younger generation, you get the sense that urban living is very much sought after in terms of its richness. I think that trend will continue. So, from a real-estate-development perspective and an economic-development perspective, I really feel that the decades ahead are going to be brighter for Philadelphia.

"In terms of city vibrancy, I think we are unmatched. And if you compare the region to Washington, D.C., to New York or to Chicago, we are in a much better place in terms of being a better bang for the buck.

"People and companies are making decisions about where they want to live and locate, and this issue of quality of life and cost of living is a fundamental part of their decision-making.

"In my mind, there is a lot to be said about the higher education as an anchor industry within the city and within the region. We need to think of our universities not just as a secluded academic engine behind an ivy wall. They are a place where people can learn different skills.

"Whether it's in construction or entry-level IT jobs, there is plenty to be done. At Penn, we had a major capital program where we hired construction companies all the time, and we had a requirement that the labor force had to have a significant component from West Philadelphia.

"That triggered a whole set of initiatives, where people who might have been on the welfare rolls for a while were introduced to carpentry or electrical or plumbing skills as apprentices and went on to union membership.

"Those workers from the community are now earning a wage that can sustain a family. And rather than having people commuting in, we have city residents who are adding to the tax rolls. So it's win-win for everybody.

"This topic of civic engagement is becoming much more part of the narrative of higher education. While many are still just talking the talk, I think in 10 years there will be more people crawling it and walking it, and that can only be good for the city and the region."

Three steps to get there

1. Prevent a population drain while the economic chips are down. "Not to have people literally pack up and leave is something that needs to be on the mind of the mayor and the governor," Blaik said. "Even in a budget crunch, we need incentives to allow homeowners to stay in their homes and jobs to be sustained rather than being lost."

2. Develop a smarter tax strategy. "I own a small business, and I tell you it was really very difficult to sign the business-privilege tax check last year, with the whole notion that rather than being told thanks for creating jobs in the city, I am being told that it is a privilege to work here."

3. Break down those ivy walls. "There could be incentives for doing campus planning with community participation or for having faculty and staff live in the neighborhoods around the institution," Blaik said. "These can be major economic stimuli, and the state and the municipalities need to think about that."