Emergency Meeting Tonight: PhilaU Development Plan


UPDATE, MONDAY JUNE 6: An emergency EFCC meeting scheduled tonight to address the U’s development plans. Meet at Falls Presbyterian Church, 7PM. 

More info here, including diagrams and a letter from EFCC zoning chair, Todd Baylson. 

Our coverage from the last community meeting about the plan below (January 2016) —

Notes and video from January’s East Falls Zoning Meeting last night, which featured Philadelphia University president Stephen Spinelli’s presentation on the school’s upcoming merger with Thomas Jefferson University.  

At Wednesday night’s zoning meeting, PhillyU’s president Stephen Spinelli seemed relaxed, up-beat, and excited about new opportunities for learning & innovation ahead, possible through a strategic merging with Jefferson. He sees benefits for the community as well, “Congratulations,”  he announces in the video above (see end of post for full 30-minute address), “… the value of your property went up.”

He went on to deliver, essentially, the same presentation he gave his own board and student body, explaining why the merger made sense and what changes might lie ahead. So far, they’ve spent about 7 months talking about merging, and then last month they dropped a Letter of Intent, so now the next step is a “Definitive Agreement” which Spinelli described as “the legal wrapper around the Letter of Intent that articulates the relationship.”

This definitive agreement is in process and should be signed soon, leading to a formal closing on June 20th, in which they’d file all the paperwork, notify all the crediting bodies, sign all the papers, shake hands, and seal the deal. Then they see a 3-year merger integration process which will be focused on how the new University will be able to leverage its new position to create better opportunities for their students.

Both universities believe merging the two schools will “break barriers” with new, integrative programs, and enhance education for their combined students. This association makes sense because both institutions are “professional education-focused” — they attract people who want to be things: doctors, designers, architects.  Industry-oriented, with a title in mind.

PhillyU students gain more choices for industry engagement, while Jefferson will be able to provide a more complete “college experience” for their students. The campuses are nicely complementary, with Jefferson’s Center urban, high-rise campus in Center City and, PhillyU, of course, has bucolic suburban charm.

Even their demos kinda supplement each other: Jefferson is graduate, PhillyU undergrad. Together, they create a diverse student body spanning a big chunk of the city.

Heath care is a huge field, with tentacles in almost every other industry. With Jefferson’s resources, PhillyU’s design & architecture students can apply their innovative ideas to future clinics, physical therapies, surgical tools, wound care textiles… the possibilities are truly staggering.

Spinelli makes a great case, and runs a slick Q&A by the way.  He took time to answer everyone — patiently listening and thoughtfully responding to quite a few questions from suspicious audience members who blamed PhillyU students for speeding, traffic, parking, and vandalism woes.

No moderator needed, here. When a Timber Lane resident got kinda worked up over the threat of new development, Dr. Spinelli calmly but firmly reminded the man to chill out, “You can say anything you want here, but say it respectfully.”   Bam! That’s how you shut a bully down!  (I hope our Council members were watching and learning.)

So then Dr. Spinelli handed the mic over to Steve Sproles, a partner in the architecture firm behind PhillyU’s 30-year plan (Derck & Edson), who came out to explain the latest version’s map and answer community questions.

Annnnd here’s where I lose interest. Sorry, it was the same old run-down of the same parking/traffic/speeding complaints that are trotted out by the same people whenever PhillyU entertains any kind of community forum. Not just PhillyU, really — everywhere in East Falls, there’s the “Parking Speeding Traffic” brigade, who by the way are seriously misguided, but that’s another post for another time.

The issue the room seemed to be debating was, “Do we as a community trust PhillyU?”  Should the neighbors grant PhillyU the institutional zoning it seeks? Most every other college & university in Philadelphia has it already — Temple, Drexel, Holy Family and even some academies and prep schools.

In fact, one neighbor got so worked up, he left in a huff calling all of us “wusses” on his way out. Mic drop, people.

Near neighbors went so far as to claim PhillyU has been “very confrontational & antagonistic” about their 30-year plan — uncooperative and resistant to community input.

PhillyU countered that they never wanted to submit a 30 year plan in the first place. “I pushed back for years,”  Spinelli said, “…and I only had it done because the community requested it.”

He went on to explain that he couldn’t possibly know what PhillyU was going to look like in 30 years, but they tried to imagine it to be a good neighbor. And when the community didn’t like elements of that plan, they changed it. If you compare the first 30 year plan presented with the current one, there’s dramatic difference.

Spinelli summed up, “We did virtually every single change in response to the community,”  and from our vantage point this does seem pretty accurate.

This time last year, we were kinda horrified at the idea of a giant parking garage in our Wissahickon watershed — and deeply crushed to see plans for lovely rolling hills of “the Nuts” to be leveled for a ball field. Now, both these items have been removed from the 30 Year Plan.  This is what we usually call a “win,” right?

Some neighbors aren’t so sure. After the meeting, we checked in with lifetime resident, local author and wilderness paddler, Dr. Jonathan Berger — another Timber Lane resident concerned about losing green space in East Falls.

Dr. Berger has gathered 400 signatures requesting PhillyU agree to preserve dedicated areas in perpetuity as part of the institutional zoning agreement. He presented a slideshow at the meeting that we hope to be adding here soon — meanwhile, here’s Dr. Berger on PhillyU’s latest zoning presentations:

EFL:   Sounds to us like PhillyU took a lot of your suggestions to heart with the re-do: no parking garage in the Wissahickon, no sports field on the Nuts — even looks like buildings are largely clustered towards the inside of the campus, as requested. 

Dr. Jon Berger:   All true. 

The problem is have they not really given up on their destructive nihilistic landscape instincts. We don’t know and even today they have not acknowledged in public forum that they accept the Wissahickon watershed ordinance regulations or any other regulations. The U ‘s view is: Try it out and if no one objects they can iron it out in the review process. This is not proactive environmental planning. It is, however, putting the siting of uses before the regulations — like the parking garage — it is OK we can make it conform.

In order to avoid these kinds of hearings in the future (if you believe that these 7 buildings are all they are going to use in the next 50 years — I  would like to know what you are smoking?) — let’s just stay off of all their vulnerable resources and figure out ways to use what we have to meet those requirements. 

I would back their plan tomorrow if they had simply said we will comply to all applicable environmental regulations so that we will not build on steep forested slopes; we will not fill in stream channels; and as a gesture to  our neighbors we will leave open the historic Ravenhill Greensward as it has been since the 18th century.

Looking forward to sitting down with this self-proclaimed “crazy tree-hugger” soon to hear more about his concerns for our environment. Meanwhile, former EFDC board member Matt McClure’s comments underscore how many neighbors feel sentiments like Bergers are unreasonable, and that it’s in the neighborhood’s best interest to support our local university’s efforts to grow & change with the times.

What do we think?  Please sound off in the comments below, or email us, or yell at us on social media. Also, visit PhillyU’s page on the quest for institutional zoning & the 30 year plan

**AS PROMISED** All 30+ minutes of Dr. Spinelli’s presentation, recorded from my seat behind some guy in a bright red shirt, beside someone who was taking notes and ripping loose-leaf every few minutes so… apologies for moderate-to-high level of viewing difficulty.

BONUS VIDEO:  Stephen Spinelli addresses the #1 question regarding PhillyU’s upcoming merger with Jefferson, “What will happen to its name?” 

GOOD NEWS! We have a new camera with an awesome mic, and we’ll be working with local organizations to provide clear, public coverage. Stay tuned…

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