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Urban Colleges Learn to Be Good Neighbors

University of Pennsylvania official Omar H. Blaik greets Keira Bokreta, 7; mother Julie Bokreta; and Nannette Sapp, 7, outside a recently renovated office building the university owns. The ground floor is leased to an upscale retail store.
University of Pennsylvania official Omar H. Blaik greets Keira Bokreta, 7; mother Julie Bokreta; and Nannette Sapp, 7, outside a recently renovated office building the university owns. The ground floor is leased to an upscale retail store. (By Michel Ducille -- The Washington Post)

So heightened is the concern over security today that a recent uptick in robberies near campus triggered a quick and intensive response. The school enlisted the help of a patrol task force from the city police department, and added street lighting and surveillance cameras at intersections to the 300 already around the campus.

But in 1996, even with cleaner, greener and safer streets, businesses were not rushing back, saying it was too risky to be a pioneer. "We'd lay out the red carpet -- we'd even plan the path so they wouldn't see anything unattractive," Blaik said. "But we'd still get a letter saying, 'No, thank you.' "

It was clear that if the neighborhood was going to be developed, Penn had to cover much of the risk. Rodin went to the board of trustees for seed money -- dismaying faculty members who thought the money should be spent on academics.

The trustees bought into the vision. Within a few years, Penn moved its bookstore off campus to encourage foot traffic, and brought in retailers such as Urban Outfitters and the Gap. Today, there is a waiting list of retailers and developers. The most recent project is a $100 million development of apartments and commercial space.

To bring back residents, Penn spent several million dollars renovating 20 dilapidated houses and priced them so middle-class residents could afford them. Nearly 1,000 employees have accepted the incentives to buy homes in the community.

But most people agree that the most important thing the university did was commit to build a public school. "That changed everything," said Tony Sorrentino, director of external affairs for the facilities office. "It brought families back."

The Penn Alexander School, which covers kindergarten through eighth grade, is an airy, glassy building that sits right outside of Penn's campus and serves 500 students. Penn's education department plays a major role in developing the school's curriculum and hiring its teachers. Penn has committed $1,000 per student annually for 10 years to ensure the quality of the school remains stable.

"The goal was to solidify and stabilize the neighborhood," said Nancy Streim, associate dean for graduate and professional education. She is working on plans for an international studies high school.

Today, Penn's popularity is such that it accepts about 20 percent of applicants, compared with 37 percent a decade ago, said Lee Stetson, dean of undergraduate admissions. And with much of the infrastructure done or in planning stages, administrators say that they have the time to further personalize their commitment to the community.

To that end, Penn is in the process of opening a community health clinic at a high school. The medical center offers a "Service Learning Academy" to high school students interested in health care, and a cardio-cancer center will create 1,500 jobs. For the first time, Penn this fall invited local high school students to campus for a tour -- 600 showed up. An administrator e-mails the Penn community weekly, itemizing the community's needs and asking for volunteers.

"This is the time to move forward with a very people-friendly plan for the neighborhood," Amy Gutmann, Penn's president, said as she ticked off a long list of current programs and future plans. "It's very important not to be complacent. All this is what keeps Penn riding high."


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