Category Archives: Civic Change

Change Afoot in West Philly!

The Philadelphia Business Journal reports on a new mixed use development by Drexel University and American Campus Communities going up in Powelton Village at the corner of 34th and Lancaster.

The development will have over 20,000 square feet of retail space and will house over 1,300 students.  The land was formerly part of the Drexel campus, but used for shop and warehouse space.  The development will be a $170+ million dollar investment – the largest individual development project (in dollars) for Drexel or American Campus Communities.  The investment is significant – the Lancaster Avenue commercial corridor has lots of potential, historic buildings, and great local businesses and some galleries that serve locals and the student market.

This type of development shows that the area may be prime for an uptick in commercial activity, student interest, and (probably) increasing residential rents.  American Campus Communities is a real estate investment trust (REIT) that trades on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol ACC.

The investment could help stabilize the corridor and provide a boost to businesses, but with any major investment like this, the community needs to be careful to ensure that the growth doesn’t force out longer term businesses who can’t afford new rents.  This type of development can also lead to the loss of historic buildings as investors may demolish in order to assemble larger parcels for other big developments.

The positives are that Drexel and ACC are committed to the community by investing in something that they can’t simply move and having an “anchor” institution often means a stable community.  (To the university’s credit, Drexel already invests over $500,000 annually in the University City District, which supplements security and cleaning services in the neighborhood – evidence of the benefit of anchor partners!).  The development will also help stitch the fabric of the Lancaster Avenue businesses closer into the Drexel campus by filling an underutilized gap in the streetscape.

A few years ago I was at a presentation by the former president of the American Planning Association, Mitchell Silver, who said that gentrification is revitalization with tradeoffs.  Being aware and careful to avoid tradeoffs between existing businesses and new development can mean that Drexel’s new development revitalizes the neighborhood instead of gentrifying it.

Philadelphia Federal Reserve Graduate Student Research Forum

On Tuesday October 22, 2013, the Philadelphia Federal Reserve held the first annual Community Development Graduate Student Research Forum.  The Department of Community Development Studies and Education at the Federal Reserve sponsored the event, which featured six paper presentations ranging from land value models of vacant city owned property to the importance of religious institutions in community stability.  Presenters came from Penn (my classmates!), Temple, Rutgers-Camden, as well as professional presentations from local CDCs, the Philadelphia Association of CDCs, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The event offered me the opportunity to meet a number of like minded researchers, community development practitioners, and graduate students.  I look forward to continuing the relationships in community development research that the Philadelphia Federal Reserve has fostered across different institutions and practice boundaries!

Think About Community Assets Differently

After a recent visit to New York City’s High Line Park, I spent some time thinking about how communities could make similar transformative investments in public space.  In fact, in Philadelphia, at the Callowhill Reading Viaduct, a community group is working to renovate an elevated rail line into a similar park.

2013-10-05 13.35.27(Photo is The High Line Park, near the Standard Hotel and Chelsea Market)

The landscape design and beauty of the High Line have already been well documented, and many places do not have the resources to recreate the High Line.  Recreating very similar interventions may be difficult, impossible, or forced in other places.  The thinking and community visioning are possible everywhere though.

What communities can do is take a look at their community differently.  For many years, the High Line was an abandoned elevated rail that blighted the community, and some explored demolishing the structure.  Instead, a small group of visionaries saw a different future.  Many communities have some overlooked space or white elephant property that can be re-imagined and turned into an asset.    All it takes is creativity, vision, and hard work to implement the idea!


Which Measuring Stick(s) Do You Use?

Countries, states, cities, and regions have long considered a number of economic measures as key indicators of success or prosperity.  Life is more complex than just economic outcomes though.  Quality of life is important, and it is made up of a number of different factors.  The environment, public health, transportation, public safety, and civic life all matter, but they are far from inclusive of all of the things that we can use to understand how communities are doing.  In an effort to think about other indicators of success, the OECD has started the Your Better Life Index.  The index only presents data at the national level, but it allows users to see how OECD countries rank in metrics other than traditional economic measures.  The OECD has also published a book that inspired the index How’s Life.  It describes the other ways that nations can measure their progress and allows users to see countries ranked based on the things that are most important to them.

The index would be especially helpful if it was available at smaller geographies – maybe the regional or city level.  Someday, when data is better integrated, it would be especially interesting to be able to compare one’s neighborhood with other places across the globe.  Users may be able to be inspired by certain quality of life metrics in neighborhoods they see in cities across the globe, or they might be able to see where their community is going.  While economic indicators are important, it is encouraging to see an early effort to use a broader spectrum of community indicators.

Work on Smart Communities

Suzanne Morse, a professor of Urban and Environmental Planning at University of Virginia, recently worked with a number of guest contributors to cover a wide range of innovative and important policy solutions that “smart” communities are pursuing. I recommend that you take a look at the work and ideas to see if any of them might help your community or spark a research interest.  Topics include high tech business tax credits, retooling federal housing programs, and how to improve labor force and job market information, among many others.  You can find the work at:

Suzanne Morse, in addition to being my graduate thesis advisor, is the author of Smart Communities (2004). The book outlines characteristics and practices that successful communities use to improve life for residents. It is definitely worth a read. The book comes from quantitative research on thriving cities and her experience as President of the Pew Partnership for Civic Change.