The Origins and End of University City Townhomes

July 14, 2023 | by Ann de Forest

University City Townhomes at 3900 Market Street in West Philadelphia. | Photo: Michael Bixler

In late April, Councilperson Jaime Gauthier stood in front of University City Townhomes at 3900 Market Street with good news for affordable housing advocates. The City had reached an agreement in a long-protracted lawsuit with Altman Management/IBID, the property’s owners and developers, on the fate of the residential complex, one of the last predominantly African American-occupied affordable housing developments in University City. The agreement stipulates that 20 percent of the 2.7-acre lot will be preserved and transferred to the City to be developed as 74 units of affordable housing. Residents, forced to leave the complex after Altman decided in July 2021 that it would not renew its 40-year contract to manage the property as Section 8 housing, will also receive $50,000 a piece in compensation. Altman/IBID is free to sell the remaining 80 percent of the property at market rate, likely to be developed as office or laboratory space in what has become a burgeoning medical research corridor.

Two days after the City’s announcement, University City Townhomes’ displaced tenants, joined by the coalition of University of Pennsylvania (Penn) and Drexel students, faculty, and fair housing advocates, united as Save the UC Townhomes, held a press conference of their own. Waving banners and hand-painted cardboard cutouts featuring residents’ faces, the residents claimed victory in their two-year struggle. “Our fight as a been long, tiring, but victorious,” declared spokesperson Rasheda Alexander, one of the last occupants remaining in the apartment complex. “This would not have happened without us.” The current outcome resulted from two years of sustained collective action, including a 31-day encampment on the site, rallies disrupting Penn president Liz Magill’s first convocation and Penn’s homecoming game on Franklin Field, and countless meetings with public officials, including HUD secretary Marcia Fudge. “We saved the People’s Townhomes! We saved the People’s Townhomes!” chanted Krystal Strong, and, with a wave of her arms, called on others to join in.

Residents and affordable housing advocates rally at University City Townhomes in April 2023. | Photo: Ann de Forest

As press conference morphed into protest rally, Alexander, Strong and others made it clear that their fight was far from over. “We said last year that we’re not going anywhere, and we’ll continue to fight to make sure any future site includes deeply affordable housing for very low-income seniors and families” said another resident spokesperson Darlene Foreman. “Deeply affordable” means 30 percent Average Median Income (AMI), the protestors stressed. None of the displaced residents, many elderly and on fixed incomes, could afford the 80 percent AMI mentioned in the City’s concessions. Residents’ demands also include a signed agreement from Altman/IBID and the City (none yet exists),  guaranteed “right to return” for all former residents, and a direct involvement in the design process to ensure that the new complex, with its significantly reduced footprint, offers green space, accessibility, spacious, inter-generational units, and common gathering areas.

Green space and designated areas for community gathering were significant features of the original University City Family Housing, as the complex was called when it welcomed its first tenants in 1983. Using HUD block grants that subsidized new construction for low-income housing in urban neighborhoods, John Gallery, the first head of City’s Office of Housing and Community Development (OHCD) under Frank Rizzo, commissioned Friday Architects to collaborate closely with the Altman Company, the project developers. The resulting design, a viable, human-scaled neighborhood in the relatively small space of two city blocks, earned acclaim from housing advocates and design critics alike and stood as an emblem of enlightened social policy and community-minded architecture. The townhouses, with their peaked roofs and welcoming porticoes, signified “home,” and the linked lawns, trees, courtyard, and pathways fostered connection among neighbors. Gallery himself, in his 1994 edition of Guide to Philadelphia Architecture, cites the “imaginatively designed low-income housing complex,” as “one of the city’s most interesting examples of post-Modern design.”

40th and Market Streets in 1966. | Photo courtesy of Denise Scott Brown

A few decades before the townhomes were built, the intersection of 40th and Market Streets was, in one resident’s words, “the pulsing heart of the Black Bottom.” A photograph of the northeast corner, taken by acclaimed architect Denise Scott Brown in 1964, captures the vibe: a lively jumble of storefronts and street signs adjacent to the 40th Street El stop with sidewalks teeming with people. That stretch of Market Street, not long liberated from the shadow of SEPTA’s elevated tracks, was more commercial than residential. On the south side of street, an unidentified institutional building dominates the block that would become University City Family Housing two decades later.

Scott Brown and her Penn architecture seminar students documented these vital blocks because they were already slated for demolition. In 1966, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority had, in the name of urban renewal, condemned most of the Black Bottom neighborhood as blighted and received federal funds for “slum clearance.” The West Philadelphia Corporation, a newly-formed consortium that included Penn, Drexel, University of the Sciences, (now part of St. Joe’s University and then known as the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy), and Presbyterian Hospital, would redevelop the land for a private-public science research center, the future University City Science Center.

The Young Great Society Architecture and Planning Cooperative identified five potential sites for affordable housing in Powelton Village for affordable housing developments. | Image courtesy of Jake Nussbaum

A coalition of Penn students, in solidarity with Black Bottom residents, protested vehemently against their university’s complicity in destroying a neighborhood and displacing thousands of low-income Black families–5,000 to 15,000 people, according to estimates. To resolve the contentious differences, Penn formed a commission, which ultimately led to an agreement between the Penn Board of Trustees and the protestors. Penn agreed to involve the neighboring community in any plans for future expansion and construction in University City, pledge $10 million (worth $76.6 million today according to Save the UC Townhomes website) to build low-income housing in the area, and replace, one to one, any housing units demolished or repurposed for university expansion. The commission held a planning charette to incorporate affordable housing into the UC Science Center master plan, and a renegade architectural collective called The Young Great Society Architecture and Planning Cooperative identified five potential sites in Powelton and West Powelton for low-income developments.

Penn never fulfilled any of these promises. The students involved graduated. The escalation of the war in Vietnam diverted protestors’ energy and attention from local issues. Penn, said one current activist, “simply waited out the clock.” But the signed documents outlining and approving the concessions still exist, as does the charrette map. The Save the University City Townhomes coalition published the material last year in The Daily Pennsylvanian. The coalition’s goal was to draw a direct connection between Penn’s complicity in demolishing the Black Bottom and the forced eviction of University City Townhomes residents more than 50 years later.

Those who once lived there remember the loss of Black Bottom as if it were yesterday, and the threatened displacement of Black and brown families for the sake of profit opened old, never-healed wounds. Altman/IBID’s decision not to renew their Section 8 status resonated with earlier instances of broken trust.

This photograph from 1975 shows the heart of Black Bottom, a thriving, predominantly African American neighborhood in West Philadelphia, along Market Street between 34th and 40th Streets after area homes and businesses were demolished. | Photo courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

The line between those two occurrences is not quite so direct nor the parallels so neat as the current protestors depicted. For example, despite the DP’s report to the contrary, 3900 Market Street, where University City Townhomes was eventually built, was not among the five projected sites for affordable housing in 1969. Instead, those two city blocks, like most of Black Bottom sites cleared for the science center, languished vacant and undeveloped for more than a decade.

There were other forces besides protests at Penn that eventually led to those two blocks in University City becoming a model affordable housing complex. One skein of the townhomes’ tangled origin story does connect to the razing of a predominantly African American West Philadelphia neighborhood by eminent domain in the late 1960s. Another leads back to a protracted legal battle over an affordable housing complex in South Philadelphia and a racial discrimination lawsuit against Mayor Frank Rizzo.

In 1971, while Penn’s administration was stalling on their promises to protestors, former police commissioner Frank Rizzo was elected mayor of Philadelphia. Almost instantly, Community Legal Services filed a racial discrimination suit against the City and its new mayor for blocking progress on Whitman Park, a federally-funded low-income housing project in a predominantly white section of South Philadelphia that had first been designed in 1957. As both police chief and mayor, Rizzo had openly supported the mostly white, working-class protestors who, fearing affordable housing would bring an influx of Blacks in their neighborhood, had sabotaged Whitman Park’s construction site, among other acts of obstruction.

Top: Housing activist Milton Street and roughly 1,500 supporters of the Whitman Park affordable housing development rally on August 5, 1979. Bottom: Angry white protestors jeer and scream at pro-Whitman Park advocates the day before. | Photos courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

In a sworn deposition Rizzo stated that he considered public housing to be the same as Black housing in that most tenants of public housing are Black. He therefore felt that there should not be any public housing placed in white neighborhoods because people in white neighborhoods did not want Black people moving in with them. Furthermore, Rizzo stated that he did not intend to allow the Philadelphia Housing Authority to ruin nice neighborhoods. The 3rd District Court in Residency Board vs. Rizzo ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor.

Current chroniclers reporting on the history of University City Townhomes stress that no affordable housing would have been built under Rizzo if Community Legal Services and vigilant fair housing advocates hadn’t fought him at every turn. Gallery, whom Rizzo appointed to run the City’s newly-established OHCD, paints a less volatile picture.

Creating that office and then choosing Gallery to run it was “one of the smartest things Frank Rizzo ever did,” said architect Don Matzkin, partner in Friday Architects, who completed many community-minded commissions for OHCD, including University City Family Housing.

A construction worker of the Whitman Park housing development walks past graffiti opposing the project in 1980. | Photo courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Gallery gives Rizzo credit for recognizing the opportunity presented by community block grants HUD had made available. Section 8, the federal government’s newly established program of subsidies, encouraged developers to renovate existing buildings or build new construction for affordable housing. “Good for developers, and good for cities,” Gallery remembered. There was a string attached, however. HUD, under director Patricia Harris, was also committed to desegregation. To qualify for federal funding, affordable housing had to be built in what were called “low impact” zones i.e. sites in census tracts where the population was not majority Black. HUD’s reasoning, Gallery explained, was that since the majority of residents qualifying for low-income housing were Black, building affordable housing in non-Black neighborhoods would be a quick means to generate racial and economic diversity.

Gallery’s task as head of OHCD was to find these areas. Section 8 stipulated that developers already own the property before housing could be constructed or renovated. Gallery, not content to wait for developers’ initiative, took a proactive approach. He identified undeveloped sites the Redevelopment Authority already owned, like 3900 Market Street. He then invited developers and architects to collaborate on a proposal for transforming the site into an affordable housing complex. 3900 Market Street, said Gallery, was one of the few non-impact sites they could find, an irony that does not escape his attention today. If Black Bottom had stayed intact, not only would that census tract have been majority Black, but he notes, “there would have been a neighborhood already there.”

At the time, Gallery, who had lived in Texas before accepting Rizzo’s offer, was oblivious to the site’s traumatic past. “It is absolutely false that this site was selected as compensation for Black Bottom. That issue did not enter into it whatsoever. We were desperate to find non-impacted sites.”

University Square at 3901 Market Street was built in 1978 and designed by architect Samuel Oshiver, Philadelphia’s so-called “high priest of the high-rise.”| Photos: Michael Bixler

Those “non-impacted” city blocks had sat fallow for more than a decade, although other parts of the block had been developed, notably University Square Apartments, a 19-story high-rise constructed in 1978 that provided affordable housing to seniors and the disabled. It was built on urban renewal-era cleared land once slated for a planned Presbyterian Hospital expansion. With this senior housing development across the street, attached to a low-rise mini-mall with a grocery and a Social Security office, and proximity to the 4oth Street El stop, the 3900 block of Market Street made an ideal locus for Section 8 housing. OHCD sponsored a design competition, calling for proposals from architect-developer teams to present their vision for transforming a vacant city block on a commercial corridor into suitable housing for low-income Philadelphians.

Friday Architects responded and teamed up with Altman Properties to create a design. As a firm, Friday Architects had already developed a reputation for designing innovative, community-minded projects, like Old Pine Community Center in Society Hill, that included and engaged their clients directly in the planning process. The firm’s niche were projects for clientele not traditionally served by mainstream architecture. The results of such engaged, participatory design are, like Old Pine, singular, playful buildings that still convey, decades later, their public-spirited optimism–the bold, colorful Calcutta House, the city’s first AIDS shelter, and the Caring Center, a charming decorated shed whose whimsical tadpoles metamorphosing into frogs has graced the Spring Garden gateway to West Philadelphia for 30 years.

The design for 3900 Market Street exemplifies Friday Architects’ light-handed, user-friendly approach. Altman’s project manager became an integral part of the team, and together, said Matzkin, “We tried to deal with that site in a way that made it habitable.” Creating a rowhouse community seemed the obvious choice for fostering a sense of neighborhood in West Philadelphia, despite mitigating factors like the noise and width of Market Street and the 20-story apartment building that loomed across the street “Luckily on the north side it actually provided some kind of reflective light,” said Matzkin. Another competition rule, he recalled, was that nothing could be built on the corner of 40th and Market Streets. That space, intentionally left open for future commercial development, is now slated to be the site of the much more compact housing development stipulated in the agreement.

A Philadelphia Inquirer article from 1991 praising Friday Architects’ design of University City Family Housing, which was later renamed University City Townhomes. | Images: Newspapers.com

The team’s design, which included charming, decorative sgraffito by artist Michael Webb in the doorway pediments, won the competition hands down. Neither Gallery nor Matzkin can clearly remember much about the other submissions. “Very standard issue, proto-slum,” Matzkin recalled Friday’s competitors, “inappropriate to what the goal of the project was as far as our interpretations,” while Gallery described “some weird multi-story amalgam.”

Despite OHCD’s enthusiasm, and imprimatur, the road to getting the project built was not smooth. A consortium of University City business owners fought it, allied with a group from Cedar Park Neighbors in a lawsuit to stop HUD from releasing funds for the project. HUD was also withholding funds from the City until Whitman Park, stalled by protests and controversy for the entire Rizzo administration, were completed. The business owners saw lost opportunity in a block that had, in the heydays of Black Bottom, been largely commercial. Federal money was not released until the lawsuit was settled in the City’s favor. By then, Rizzo had left office, and Thomas H. Massaro, who had succeeded Gallery as OHCD director, took credit for bringing both the South Philadelphia and University City projects to fruition. When University City Family Housing finally opened, 700 families applied for 70 available units.

After the first tenants began to settle in, UC Family Housing seemed like a model for affordable housing that created a neighborhood enclave, while integrating (or more accurately, re-integrating) a section of the city in danger of losing its racial and economic diversity. As it turned out, though, the townhomes were a singular product of a particular historical moment.

University City Townhomes, once buzzing with the daily activity of its residents, is now a vacant, boarded up ghost town. The site is slated for new affordable housing on a smaller footprint, and displaced residents are currently fighting for true affordability and their right to return.| Photos: Michael Bixler

UC Family Housing was the only OHCD project in a non-impact zone ever realized in Philadelphia. “In 1980,” Gallery explained, “Ronald Reagan became president, and he had no interest in promoting desegregation. So he killed [affordable housing programs.]” Section 8, no longer a catalyst for desegregating and revitalizing cities through new construction and renovation projects, was reduced to a rent subsidy program for pre-existing units.

What the history of University City Townhomes, bound with equally fraught histories all over the city (and country), makes clear is that poor residents have always had to fight for necessities that more well-off Philadelphians take for granted. In West Philadelphia, that history is linked as well to a painful legacy of displacement. There is also another narrative line running through this story that tells of institutional amnesia, malicious or not, and the fickleness of public policy and funding, which shift depending on the political agendas of whoever happens to be in office, whoever currently holds power, at both the civic and federal level. Inevitably it is the poor, predominantly BIPOC, caught in those shifting tides.

As a one-off, though, University City Family Housing did exactly what OHCD, under Gallery’s direction, Friday Architects, as well as the original developers from Altman, had designed it to do–creating a cozy enclave for families to grow and neighbors to forge bonds. Although the Section 8 system did not allow any avenue towards home ownership or building equity, to the longtime residents their urban oasis was a true home and became a place worth fighting for.

Graffiti on the facade of an empty home at University City Townhomes reminds passerby of the people that once lived there. | Photo: Michael Bixler

That fight continues. “This is where we started to build our strength and where we’re keeping it,” said Mel Hairston, at the rally in April. Empowered by two years of organizing and collective struggle against the market forces that put profits over people, the residents of 3900 Market Street now demand a seat at the table in creating the next iteration of “The People’s Townhomes. “Our vision [all along] has been to preserve our community for resident-centered development without displacement,” Ms. Lowell, one of the resident elders, said at the rally. “We are prepared to work collaboratively.”

“And now we take to the street!” shouted Krystal Strong. With banners held high, the group marched south on 40th Street and turned east on Chestnut Street. Their chants rang over the hum of rush-hour traffic as they headed toward the advancing juggernaut of blue glass and steel high-rise towers, reminding and remonstrating anyone passing by: “Housing is a human right. Housing is a people’s fight!


About the Author

Ann de Forest writes frequently about design, architecture, and the built environment. She is co-editor of Extant, the magazine of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. Her short stories, essays and poems have appeared in Coal Hill Review, Unbroken, Noctua Review, Cleaver Magazine, among others. She is the editor of Ways of Walking, an anthology of essays published by New Door Books in 2022, a project inspired by her having walked the entire perimeter of Philadelphia twice.

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