By Susan Snyder
Inquirer Staff Writer
Drexel University’s new president, John A. Fry, on Tuesday outlined a five-point plan to improve the neighborhood, including an expanded safety-patrol zone and a loan forgiveness program for employees who buy homes in the area.
In his first major address to the university community, Fry also pledged expertise and fund-raising support for the area’s public elementary school and an effort to improve the business district along Lancaster Avenue.
Fry, a former University of Pennsylvania executive who was a key architect of Penn’s successful plan to revitalize its neighborhood, hopes to make history repeat itself.
“Let us mark today as the beginning of a new phase of a high-impact university-community partnership that will lift Drexel University and its surrounding neighborhoods to new heights,” Fry said, drawing a standing ovation at the school’s convocation.
He said he wanted Drexel to become the country’s “most civically engaged university.”
Fry, who became president Aug. 1, lamented what he sees in Drexel’s Powelton and Mantua neighborhoods: littered streets, dilapidated houses, and broken streetlights. As Drexel has grown, students are moving deeper into the neighborhoods.
“It’s an environment which is not necessarily an inviting one, and it’s an environment that houses over 5,000 of our students,” said Fry, who was hired in March after eight years as president of Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, where he also launched land-development projects. “It’s kind of chaotic.”
Fry also announced that Drexel had put the president’s house in Strafford up for sale and will find a house in the campus neighborhood – a symbolic step. Dubbed the Orchards, the 2.8-acre Montgomery County estate, donated by an alumna and her husband, is on the market for $2.7 million.
He will not live in the house, but will remain in the Haverford area, where he is renting a house and where he lived while working at Penn. His two children attend the Shipley School.
Since coming to campus, Fry has been meeting with politicians, community leaders, and civic organizations, looking to reestablish the relationships he had as an executive at Penn.
There, Fry oversaw finances, human resources and facilities, and other areas. He helped bring in a movie theater and grocery, was involved in the creation of the public Penn Alexander School, and launched the University City District in 1997, fostering relations among colleges, retailers, and residents. He served as president of that board for five years while at Penn.
He was particularly struck by his meeting last month with the Powelton Village Civic Association and found many of their concerns and goals were common.
George Poulin, president of the civic association board, said he is excited about the potential for collaboration.
“We feel very fortunate to now have an interested audience in Drexel,” he said. “The community presented opportunities for collaboration in terms of housing, public schools, retail development, and streetscape improvements. President Fry seemed engaged with what we had to say.”
He agreed with Fry’s assessment of some areas in the neighborhood.
“Powelton Village has a wonderful core of well-maintained historic homes, but parents and students arriving at Drexel for the first time would never believe it based on the condition of blocks surrounding campus,” he said.
City Councilwoman Jannie L. Blackwell, whose district includes Drexel, also said she was heartened by Fry’s early work as president and believes the area needs work.
“There is a certain learning curve that he doesn’t have to engage in. He knows the area. He knows the issues. He knows the people,” she said.
Alan Greenberger, the city’s deputy mayor for economic development, agreed that some areas of the neighborhood are troubled and endorsed Fry’s plan.
“You’re seeing a mix, and the mix always has the potential to get worse if left unchecked,” he said. “He’s right in that we need to take the problems on.”
Under Fry’s plan, Drexel will expand its security patrol area from Spring Garden Street to Wallace Street, which is in Mantua, east to about 31st Street, and west to 42d Street. The 54-block expansion will provide a safer corridor through the neighborhoods between Drexel’s athletic complex and North 40th Street along Powelton and Haverford Avenues. Drexel will pay the University City District about $750,000 annually to add patrols.
Blue light safety phones, more closed-circuit surveillance, lighting, tree-trimming, landscaping, green spaces, and vendor courts also could be added, he said. There is no projected starting date for the new zone.
The zone could be expanded even farther, he said.
Drexel also has pumped up incentives for employees to live in the neighborhood and tripled the area that qualifies. The school will give new homeowners within the boundaries of 31st to 42d Streets and Chestnut Street to Mantua Avenue a $15,000 forgiveness loan, to be paid up front and kept as long as the employee stays five years. That is five times the amount of the previous incentive program, of which no employees took advantage, he said.
The school also will give current Drexel employees who live in the neighborhood a onetime $5,000 home-improvement grant, he said.
Fry said the university will look to add more housing on campus, but gave no specifics. He said he was concerned about the condition of some homes converted into student residences, questioning whether they meet city inspection standards.
The conditions, he said, “make me very nervous even though it’s not ‘Drexel housing,’ ” he said.
University officials also will look to partner with parents at Powel School, a K-4 public school that serves the neighborhood. He said he’d also like to explore with the School District the possibility of expanding it to sixth or eighth grade, an interest he’s heard from the community.
“Drexel is going to basically step in and seek corporation and foundation support as well as put in its own resources,” he said, helping the school write grants and find foundation support.
But at this point, he doesn’t envision subsidizing the school budget, as Penn has at Penn Alexander.
The university also will strengthen ties with other area schools, including University City High and Drew and McMichael Schools.
In cooperation with the University City District, Drexel will look at the Lancaster Avenue corridor from 34th to 40th Streets to attract shopping, other businesses, and amenities and arts and culture. The initiative would be similar to the efforts Penn made on 40th and recent revitalization along Baltimore Avenue.
The university does not have a fixed budget for the plan, Fry said, but he added that it will be an “important financial commitment.”
He said he hoped that Drexel’s commitment, which has the support of the board of trustees, spurs a larger effort, as happened at Penn.
“At Penn, there were a lot of investors, agencies, organizations, institutions,” he said. “That’s what you want.”