Mary Sanders knows what it’s like to be the last one standing. At 89, she lives alone on the 1800 block of North 16th Street, in a single rowhome that sits like a besieged island between the vacant lots on either side.
Both lots are owned by the city, and both are littered with construction debris. Trucks and loaders from an active construction site across the street park so close to her door she can’t get out of the house. Weeds from the vacant lot to the north are well on their way to swallowing up her backyard. The lot belongs to, though apparently is not much maintained by, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority — but the PRA expects to convey it soon to a private developer for market-rate student housing.
Sanders is standing her ground amid a land rush that has gobbled up block after block of this North Central Philly neighborhood, spitting out low-cost student housing and leaving a trail of damage and debris behind.
Not far from Sanders, on 15th Street, is another building that’s been cornered by development — now vacant, neighbors say, thanks in part to a large crack that appeared along its front as a massive apartment complex began to spring up next door. That building is owned by developer Daniel Greenberg, who accomplished the impressive feat of securing a zoning variance that allowed him to replace an old stone church with a 36-unit monster built for housing Temple students. Greenberg wouldn’t comment on whether the damage to the building next door had anything to do with his project. A recent visit found the Philadelphia Fire Department ordering the entrance taped off in case it collapsed.
And in a dingy pile in the middle of a city-owned vacant lot at Master and Carlisle streets is a mound of bricks — yellow, new-looking and an exact match for the walls of a brand-new development around the corner. The owner of that development, a company called University Realty, L.P., also owns much of the rest of the block, which it has filled with new apartments advertised for students.
Walk in any direction on almost any block between 19th Street and Broad near Temple’s campus and you’ll find plenty more where that came from: sites improperly fenced, dried cement in the gutters, piles of construction debris illegally dumped in city-owned vacant lots, construction sites without posted permits, permits without street accommodations, development without much regard for anyone — including, apparently, for the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections, which should be issuing violations for all of the above.
In a city that’s seen development slow down in the recession, the rush to build around Temple is so frenetic that new structures pop up almost overnight.
Whole blocks have become construction zones of sometimes-profound sloppiness and even illegality: Rumors abound that some of the properties under construction were stolen, that contractors are paying off city garbage trucks to take their waste, that permits have been fudged. Meanwhile, adding insult to injury, signs hang off the buildings proclaiming their primary (and, indeed, probably exclusive) target: “Student Rentals!,” “Affordable Student Housing!”
The whole neighborhood has become the backdrop of a kind of whodunit — one nobody is pausing to solve. Residents aren’t in control here, and developers claim they aren’t either, especially since a proposal to turn the area into a Neighborhood Improvement District stalled out this spring. The city claims that enforcement of building codes has been stepped up. But if it has, it’s been a step up from clear insufficiency. The area’s 5th District councilman, Council President Darrell Clarke, claims that short of calling L&I himself on each infraction, he’s largely unable to intercede. Meanwhile, Temple University — the source, after all, of the students — has so far eschewed much responsibility for off-campus housing.
At the center of all this finger-pointing is a question of power: Who controls the neighborhood? And, amidst the flurry of activity, who’s trying to take the reins?
Mary Sanders, 89, has seen her entire North Central Philly block taken by eminent domain. She, however, has no plans to leave.
North Central Philadelphia has always been a battleground for land and the power that comes with controlling land — especially when it’s vacant. Decades ago, the area was one of the finest African-American neighborhoods in the country, and its stately brownstones housed many of Philly’s black elite. But as white flight drained resources from the city, good jobs left and banks routinely refused to give mortgages on North Philly homes, the neighborhood declined drastically. Houses rotted and collapsed, vacant lots multiplied, drugs dominated.
Temple slowly expanded into this vacuum of wealth and power, not always without stepping on its neighbors’ toes. In the 1950s and ’60s, the university’s use of eminent domain to expand its campus began a legacy of bitter resentment among some residents and black leaders.
In the 2000s, the specter of eminent domain resurfaced in the form of then-Mayor John Street’s Neighborhood Trans-formation Init-iative (NTI), which used that power to relocate residents and demolish dilap-idated houses across Philly, including many near Temple.
In 2004 or 2005, says Sanders, NTI tried to buy out her block, which she admits had become infested with drug dealers. The city offered her money (she doesn’t recall how much) to move from her rowhouse on North 16th Street. She — and only she — refused. (Sanders’ house is now worth far more than any offer she’d have gotten at the time — a point she’s reminded of almost weekly by developers who call, ring her bell and mail her letters begging to buy her house.)
NTI was envisioned as a two-part program: demolition, then assembly of vacant land for community development. But that second part never entirely materialized, leaving North Central Philly and neighborhoods like it full of empty land and ripe for private investment. And coinciding with the increased supply was an increased demand for it from a growing Temple student body.
In many ways, that has been a good thing — almost every longtime resident I spoke with had positive things to say about the changes. Crime was down, they said; dirty lots had become new houses. But the students and their collegiate revelries are sometimes a point of contention. In Council hearings on the subject, neighbors haven’t always helped their cause, often coming off as unwelcoming and painting students with perhaps a broader brush than they deserve.
Raymond Betzner, a spokesman for Temple, says that residents have made two messages “very clear.”
Message one: “They didn’t want Temple to acquire more land.” Message two: “More on-campus housing.”
He points out that Temple is in the process of constructing a new 1,000-bed dormitory to add to its stock of 5,000 on-campus beds. But some 7,000 students live off-campus, and as Temple expands, that number is only likely to grow with it.
The beauty of cowboy development, meanwhile, is that Temple’s off-campus housing is being built without the university having to lift a finger.
The clash between students and residents is at the heart of a political puzzle that’s only getting more complicated. North Philly needs Temple to survive, and Temple needs North Philly to grow. But no one so far has had the political courage to confront the conflict at the heart of that relationship.
The university, Betzner says, has commissioned a report on student behavior in the neighborhood; it’s currently being reviewed by outgoing Temple president Ann Hart. Other than that, Temple has been noticeably quiet when it comes to solutions.