As the elected representative of the Fifth Council District, I have watched with interest as Temple University evolved from a commuter school accessible to modest-income Philadelphians into a larger institution that attracts students from around the world – students who require safe, quality housing that their school was slow to provide.
Instead, Temple relied on the private market to respond to student needs, sparking a furious explosion in rentals catering to students that has driven up housing prices and created quality-of-life headaches for longtime residents.
In 2012, I introduced legislation to create a Neighborhood Improvement District (NID) that would provide supplemental trash, lighting, and safety resources for areas surrounding Temple, funded by fees on student-housing landlords. The NID would be similar to special districts that support residential areas in University City, and good landlords who wanted to do right by North Philly were supportive. But a misinformation campaign led small businesses and homeowners to believe they would be harmed by the NID. Once the community decided it did not want the special district, I declined to proceed with the legislation – even though I disagreed with that decision.
Absent significant action from Temple to address residents' ongoing concerns, I also deliberated a legislative moratorium on new student housing near campus and won passage of a student code of conduct, which anecdotal evidence suggests is not consistently enforced. When considering uses for vacant, publicly owned properties near campus, I have urged the city to seek redevelopment that will benefit the community instead of more rentals that will only be offered to students.
But at the end of the day, City Council's limited legislative power to address quality-of-life issues simply cannot be surmounted without greater cooperation from the university.
In 2015, when Temple's board of trustees announced plans to build a football stadium in a neighborhood bordering campus, I expressed personal skepticism but made it clear that if the community supported the stadium, I would consider introducing legislation making it possible. From my perspective, Temple could have rectified past failings by making a renewed effort to build trust with the community in order to gain its support. Only good could come from this process, I thought — along with, perhaps, a special services district and greater community investment.
As those following the stadium conversation now know, none of those positive developments occurred.
This month, in an apparent attempt to win a PR battle it has been losing badly, the university mailed a brochure to area residents purporting to explain its desire to build a stadium, vowing that "Temple will not tolerate disturbances in local neighborhoods." An illustration shows the stadium nestled snugly within the bounds of Broad, Norris, and 16th Streets, in brick tones that blend smoothly with surrounding homes.
While Temple takes pains to mention that it owns the property on the stadium site, it does not own 15th Street between Norris and Montgomery. City approval will be required to close that street and build a stadium on top. Nor does Temple mention that its football team will play only six home games every year there, while traffic will be rerouted around the stadium complex every day of every year.
A letter signed by president Richard M. Englert wrongly blames "a small group of organized protesters" for the delay in providing residents with this information up until now. Adding further insult, the university is only now committing to a Special Services District and "substantial investment" in nearby Amos Recreation Center, which presumably will only be offered if the university gets its way on the stadium.
Mistrust in university leadership has reached the point where it is now hurting worthy projects that we have been working on since before the stadium debacle. The Temple College of Education's planned 95,000-square-foot community center will offer pre-K, health services, and workforce training to surrounding residents. It is a "community school" partnership that precedes the Kenney administration, and it pains me deeply to see it come under attack because of its association with the university.
I urge university leadership to put the brakes on its stadium campaign and address this crisis of confidence within the community. The special services district now being proposed would have been welcomed in 2012, and every year before and every year since. If Temple is serious about its commitment to North Philadelphia, new community investments should be offered without any strings attached. There is still time to rectify past missteps in building strong relations with near residents, and that – not a stadium – should now be the university's priority.