The change happens suddenly on the walk north along 13th Street towards Temple University, Without much warning, you’ve landed in the middle of a dense, busy and somehow stressful environment. There’s a lot of construction to avoid plus all the cars, food trucks, and, of course, the hundreds of students walking, talking, biking, or just sunbathing on their bikinis in the grass in front of the Samuel Paley Library.
But once you cross Diamond Street, everything calms down. The scale drastically changes from looming, modernist dorms and classroom buildings to narrow, two-story rowhomes. You can feel the breeze and enjoy a little quiet. The Philadelphia Military Academy, a school decorated with murals of black kids and heroes — Leon Sullivan, Dr. Ruth Wright Hayre, Malcolm X, and more — sits on one corner of 13th Street. On the northwest corner, where 13th meets Diamond, cars park in an empty concrete lot. A few basketball hoops stand over the parking spots.
Linton Rawls, a 80 years old resident who has lived there for 40 years, said the neighborhood is usually quiet, but that it is getting crowded. He has a space to park behind his house, but people visiting him have a hard time finding a spot. The street feels busier than he remembers.
“Temple is growing; they’re expanding, you know — all over,” Rawls said. “Is like they’re taking over.”
The university’s proposed $130 million stadium is the biggest — and most contentious — element of the university’s growth plan but for Rawls, a smaller project hits closer to home. In fact, right in front of his home.
Known as the Alpha Center, the four-story, 95,000-square-foot community center would fill the empty lot now used for parking and adjacent lots with new amenities including an early childhood education center designed for neighborhood residents and a dental clinic, along with other health services and educational facilities. Plans show a playground and other community spaces. Rawls isn’t necessarily opposed to it. He just doesn’t know much about it.
“As far as I know, it’s supposed to be right here,” Rawls said, standing in his front door, looking at the empty lot. “I don’t know too much about it, and I don’t know if it will benefit me because of my age. But the community, with the kids and stuff — they should benefit.”
On Tuesday, the project received a second hearing in front of the city’s Civic Design Review board. Representatives of Strada Architecture, the firm designing the center, showed city design critics a few changes made to the project since its last public review. The most significant design tweak involved the playground, previously elevated seven feet off the sidewalk at its highest point. Though the designers said the elevation was meant to protect children from street traffic, the design provoked outcry last time because it looked like a wall. The designers responded by lowering the elevation to 3.6 feet off the ground. Temple also tweaked the building to add more windows and other features to answer concerns that it looked like an undifferentiated box.
While the architects and professionals on the city advisory board largely focused their questions on specific plans for the site, neighborhood residents have larger questions, questions about community benefits and the institution’s end goals that have dogged the project throughout the last several months of public review and planning. For residents, it’s difficult to disconnect the community health and education facility from the stadium and its impact on the residential neighborhood where many have lived for decades.
Temple has “just presumed upfront what the community wants — that kind of arrogance is not acceptable. We’re not against services, but we’re against services that don’t have any input from the community,” said Tenth Memorial Baptist Church Pastor William B. Moore, a member of the anti-stadium group, Stadium Stompers. “If we sit down with our elected officials, the non profits, people who live in the neighborhood, along with the university to come up with a plan as to what is best for the community… That is perhaps the one way that Temple can begin to alleviate some of the hostility that exist in the community.”
But Moore and the Stompers don’t speak for everyone. Many residents have more ambivalent feelings about the Alpha Center and the university’s role in the neighborhood as a whole. Neighbor Ruth Taylor is a retired nurse in her late 60s who has owned a house less than a block from the proposed center’s site for 38 years. She says Temple has generally been a good neighbor, but the institution is known in the area for saying one thing, and doing another. She said even after going to an information meeting about the Alpha Center at a local church last week, she still doesn’t have a complete take on the project.
“You [Temple] don’t give us the information, so we have no knowledge of what’s going on, until after,” Taylor said. “Show me the final, what are you going to do: a, b, c, and so forth. And then, we can understand. I mean, it sounds good — it always sounds good if you’re not seeing the complete picture.”
Taylor said she can’t predict what can go wrong, but she really hopes the center is really open to the North Philly community as a whole. “But it’s a business, so what you’re going to do. If they do 75 percent of what they say, that’s good. You’re not going to get 100 percent, period,” Taylor said. “But just be respectful that this is a residential area. We live here, this is our homes, and we want to keep it halfway decent.”
Donna Richardson, president of the Norris Community Resident Council, has lived in the neighborhood for 29 years. Like Taylor, she knows the downsides of living next to a 40,000-student university. Temple “owns everything,” she said. But she also sees benefits in having such a powerful neighbor. It’s presence has made the area safer, she says. She thinks the school is taking steps to communicate better with their neighbor.
“I love the fact that they’re willing to engage and help the community, and involve the community in their planning,” Richardson said at her office at the Philadelphia Housing Authority Norris Apartments, right next to Temple’s main campus. “They could do more, but one step at a time.”
Richardson believes most of the people against the community center are still holding on to the past. “And then you have a lot of people that’s mad because the universe is not willing to give them their personal gain, and they’re not thinking as a whole, they’re thinking on themselves,” she said indirectly referring to neighbors saying an early childhood education center is not needed in a mostly senior community.
There’s a huge need for more services in the area, Richardson said. And people in the neighborhood often complains about Temple tearing down buildings. The center would give children good opportunities, parents an outlet to get resources, and seniors a way to stay active in the community, she said.
“So why would you not want this building?.” Richardson said. “It’s an empty lot — it’s an empty lot. Is not like you’re tearing down nothing, or taking away. You’re adding to the community.”