At first glance, it's hard to see what all the fuss is about.
The empty white house on the northwest corner of 40th and Pine streets may seem out of place in a neighborhood of 19th-century Italianate mansions.
But Penn's plans to build a 10-story hotel on the site have been met with stiff community opposition that threatens Penn's relationship with its western neighbors.
Penn could be forgiven for thinking the community would praise its plan to revitalize that corner of Spruce Hill. What is now a decrepit building would serve as the anchor for a thriving commercial corridor.
Opponents say the University is disregarding their concerns and are mystified by the political capital Penn is expending to push through the project.
University officials disagree but don't believe they can convince opponents to get on board. They are going ahead with requests for zoning approval.
A new strategy?
When Penn announced the purchase of 24 acres east of campus from the U.S. Postal Service in 2007, it turned a page on troubled past expansion plans.
Its development strategy will replace parking lots with parks and office buildings, providing the University with plenty of space to expand. Unlike in Penn's previous expansions, no one will be displaced.
Penn is thus avoiding the problems plaguing schools, like Columbia University, that are expanding by relocating entire neighborhoods, much like Penn did in the 1960s by knocking down row homes between 38th and 40th streets to create space for the high rise college houses.
Campus Inn would appear to be a small sideshow by comparison. Instead, since Penn first unveiled the plan in 2007, it has seen a significant amount of opposition.
A neighborhood coalition is trying to derail construction.
The Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia has come out against it, as has Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Inga Saffron and local politicians.
Critics' concerns center around the hotel's height, which they say poses a threat to the character of a historic neighborhood of three- and four-story twin Victorians.
For its part, Penn and its developers - Campus Apartments, Hersha Hotels and private developer Tom Lussenhop - say an extended-stay hotel is precisely what families of patients at area hospitals need.
"It's a progressive solution," said Paul Sehnert, Penn's director of Real Estate Development.
Penn says the hotel will serve as an anchor for a corridor of businesses along 40th Street that includes the Hub apartment building, the Fresh Grocer and the Bridge: Cinema de lux. Studies the developers released predict it will generate 35,000 new customers annually for area businesses and $800,000 to $1 million in new sales and occupancy taxes each year.
Indeed, Lussenhop was instrumental in creating the 40th Street corridor, bringing in Fresh Grocer and the Bridge when he worked as Penn's top real estate official in the late 1990s.
But Preservation Alliance executive director John Gallery questioned Penn's right to establish such a corridor.
"They shouldn't be unilaterally allowed to make that decision," he argued, adding that Penn should submit its plan to the City Planning Commission for approval.
Marianna Thomas, a longtime area architect, offered a more scathing critique.
She derided the corridor as a "secret University plan" that has never been subject to community review. She also argued that high-rise development has traditionally stopped south of Locust Street.
Penn, on the other hand, says publishing too many details about the corridor would be counterproductive. The University doesn't have firm plans about which properties it will buy along 40th Street and says publishing its intentions will drive property prices up and confirm fears of an impending land-grab.
"When properties become available, we're interested," said Anne Papageorge, vice president for Facilities and Real Estate Services.
The road to the Inn
Penn practically stumbled across the mansion.
Long a nursing home, it was shuttered by the state in 2003. Penn stepped in because no one else would pay the nearly $1.7 million to purchase it.
"We didn't have a specific use identified," said Ed Datz, executive director of Real Estate.
The University sought an outside developer, looking at several plans before settling on the one proposed by Lussenhop, Campus Apartments and Hersha Hotels.
As a former Penn official, Lussenhop carried credibility, and Campus Apartments has a long track record of partnering with Penn to rehabilitate derelict properties. The two brought on Hersha to run day-to-day operations at the Hilton-branded hotel.
The project's problems emerged in part because Penn simply hadn't done its homework. When it and the developers tried to demolish the property, they discovered it was registered with the city Historical Commission and couldn't be knocked down.
After an unsuccessful effort to get the site delisted, the developers' new plan involved rehabilitating the building and attaching an 11-story hotel.
But community members raised serious objections.
Thomas said when she first saw the artists' renderings she was shocked by how large the building loomed.
"We couldn't believe Penn really was in any way supporting this," she said. She and area residents wrote a letter to Penn President Amy Gutmann stating their concerns and were shocked by the reaction they received.
"The door gets slammed in our faces," she said, adding that the response was out of character for the University.
Penn presented the plan at its monthly First Thursday community meeting in October 2007 and, for its part, said it has done all it could to reach out to concerned residents.
The developers approached the Zoning Board of Adjustment to get the necessary variances for high-rise development. When their request was turned down, they presented their plan to the Planning Commission, which approved it despite some reservations.
A turning point
This was the turning point in opponents' minds. They question how the Planning Commission could approve the project even though developers made no major changes in response to their concerns, as Planning Commission executive director Alan Greenberger acknowledged. The only change made was making the building one story shorter.
In conjunction with the Preservation Alliance, they have filed an appeal with the Department of Licenses and Inspections Review Board seeking to overturn a Historical Commission ruling that allowed the project to move forward. The appeal is waiting to be heard.
Opponents have also won significant political support. State Rep. James Roebuck wrote a letter in the University City Review opposing the project along with Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell.
In an interview, Blackwell criticized the developer for not accommodating the neighborhood.
"If there's no compromise, then there's no project," she said, adding that Campus Inn can sit in "purgatory" until then.
Penn and the developers say they have reached an impasse.
"At some point, we have some fundamental disagreements," Papageorge said.
She said the City will judge the hotel's merits. After more than 70 meetings with concerned residents, Penn can't think of anything more to do.
Yet this strategy risks fundamentally damaging Penn's relationship with the neighborhood. Opponents fear the development will set a dangerous precedent and herald a wave of new high-rise construction in the neighborhood. They are mystified why Penn is taking such a tough stance on a relatively small project.
With all the land Penn has to the east, "why are they doing this to the west?" Thomas asked.Comments powered by Disqus
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.