Planning Commission launches work on University City/Southwest district plan

Planning the future of the University City/Southwest District calls for a bit of a balancing act, said West Philadelphia planner and project manager Andrew Meloney at the first public input session for this portion of the city’s comprehensive plan.

The area is home to 10.9 percent of the city’s jobs, many of them tied to medical and education institutions. The University of Pennsylvania is the city’s largest private employer.

The meds and eds continue to grow, and the city wants this to happen. The challenge is channeling the growth so that it doesn’t overwhelm the district’s many neighborhoods, Meloney said.

The number of students and location of student housing illustrates this issue. Meloney said 48 percent of the district’s residents are between the ages of 20 and 44, compared to 38 percent city wide. In University City/Southwest, 31 percent of residents are between 20 and 29, he said. The skew toward youthfulness reflects the large number of students, Meloney said.

Students need housing. New dormitories have been built, and single-family homes have been converted into apartments, to house them, even outside of the traditional University City area where students have been concentrated, Meloney said.

“We want to make sure we … save some of these single family areas and focus multi-family conversions, and multi-family development in general, along the commercial corridors, in transit-oriented development, and in the University City center,” Meloney said.

Planner Meloney outlines current conditions in the district.

Some of this is already happening, he said, mentioning Drexel University’s new 900 bed Chestnut Square. Putting more students on campus means saving more single family areas in the neighborhoods, he said.

In University City, limiting multi-family setups to commercial corridors and transit-oriented development would still provide a great deal of possible locations. This cluster of neighborhoods includes Kingsessing, University City, Powelton and West Powelton, Spruce Hill and others, and boasts 20 different commercial corridors, Meloney said.

The area also boasts a host of transit options, including Regional Rail, trolley lines, bus lines and subways. And residents use these modes of transportation, along with walking and bicycling, far more frequently than residents of other parts of the city, Meloney said.

In his overview of current conditions in the district, Meloney said University City/Southwest has a good number of parks and recreation opportunities, but they are clustered in certain areas, leaving some residents without good access to green space.

Some steps are already being taken to change this.

Along 58th Street in Kingsessing, a green way is going in that will connect Cobbs Creek with Bartrams Garden and the Schuylkill River. This isn’t just about green space, Meloney said. The population has actually declined in this area, and the hope is that amenities like the trail will help attract growth.

The city has already passed a city-wide comprehensive plan, called Philadelphia2035. The University City/Southwest district plan is the fifth district-level plan undertaken. Plans for West Park, Lower South and the Lower Northeast have already been adopted, and the Center City Plan is underway. To learn more, see the Philadelphia2035 website.

Two more public meetings on the University City/Southwest District Plan will follow in January and March, but there are also other ways for interested people to participate. Starting in January, questions about the district will be placed at various places around the neighborhoods, and people can use their phones to text in their replies. Called Textizen, this program has been used by the planning commission to help draft other plans.

Another January initiative is brand new to this district plan: Community PlanIt. This is an interactive, on-line planning game that will allow people to go to the website, answer questions, tell stories about their experiences in the community and interact with other people. While the University City/Southwest game isn’t live yet, the website is available here. Other cities, including Detroit and Boston, have used the game for planning work.

At Tuesday’s first community input session, held at the Enterprise Center, participants worked in groups of about half-a-dozen, and were asked to identify area attractions, areas they believe will stay the same or should be preserved, areas they believe will or should change, and places where they feel uncomfortable or where there is a physical or psychological barrier keeping the area from meeting its potential.

The group PlanPhilly sat with spent considerable time discussing the area’s multitude of diverse dining options, and what a draw they are.

Louis Manon, who lives just outside the official boundary of the district, said World Cafe Live “makes you feel like you’re actually going out somewhere.”

Other attractions included Clark Park, noted not only for its green space but farmer’s market, food trucks and family and neighborhood reunions.

Some of the small-group discussion.

Rasheen Crews, a resident who works for State Sen. Anthony Williams, said the transportation network of mass transit and roads that makes it possible to get not only around the area, but from it to other parts of the city or nearby towns quickly, is a wonderful feature.

Manon added that some key roads – such as some connecting the neighborhoods to the airport – seem to be lacking in retail and other activity. The uncomfortable feeling this creates can lead a driver to take the highway instead.

When asked about the future, Glenn D. Bryan, the Penn assistant vice president for community relations, said he’s noticed that retail is improving on some parts of Lancaster Avenue that have been a bit desolate. More student and family-friendly retail could boost life along other commercial corridors, the group agreed.  Crews said he thinks small-scale, mom-and-pop businesses are on the upswing, and big boxes are trending out.

Resident Melody Lester said one relatively simple way to encourage her and her friends to go to more places in the area – and use transit – is to improve lighting at El stops.  The “dim, yellow lighting” does not do enough to make areas feel well-lit and safe, she said.

The feedback will be compiled and analyzed by planning staff.

The final plan is expected to be presented to the Philadelphia City Planning Commission for adoption in April.

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