Sheila Johnson has one wish: for Temple’s new medical school building to be located elsewhere, other than in front of her porch.
Contrary to the school’s Web site, which considers the 480,000 square-foot structure to be “a source of pride for the university community and for Philadelphia,” residents living near the $160 million building project have branded it a “monster” in the community.
“I just wish they could’ve put it someplace else,” said Johnson, who lives directly behind the 13-story edifice. “We’re happy there’s a new structure of progress in our community, but at that magnitude, I don’t think it should have been that high.”
The all-glass front tower is located along the west side of North Broad Street between Venango and Tioga streets. The height of the building has drawn the ire of area residents and members of the Zion Baptist Church, as it casts a shadow over houses located directly behind the new facility.
Zion Baptist, once led by renowned social activist Rev. Leon Sullivan, is located at 3600 N. Broad St.
“With the height of the building, the shade will cause everybody’s utilities to be much higher,” Zion Baptist member Cynthia Fullenwellen said. “It’s a humongous building. I’ve sat with people at that construction site, [and] they even talk about the monster of the building. Why would you put such a monster in a community?”
With the completion date set for this May, Johnson said many questions, such as Fullenwellen’s, have gone unanswered from Temple officials.
“There was an extensive process with the community and also with the city of Philadelphia,” said Kenneth Lawrence Jr., senior vice president of government, community and public affairs, about the zoning procedures that took place before the school’s groundbreaking. “The university went above and beyond to meet with different community groups. We feel there was a very active dialogue with the community during the whole planning process before construction even started.”
Still, Fullenwellen said “there’s no need for that building to be that high.”
Prior to the construction of the building, members in the Tioga Zion Community Advocates organization met with the school’s architect planners and Temple representatives to discuss a community-benefit agreement.
Johnson, who is the block captain for the 3500 block of Carlisle Street, said the earlier stages of construction were problematic.
Soon after the medical school groundbreaking ceremony, Johnson, and members of the Tioga Zion group, began to notice violations by construction site workers.
“They were starting work at 6:30 in the morning, pounding because they were putting sticks in the ground,” said Rev. Jesse Brown, pastor of a church in Southwest Philadelphia and member of the Tioga Zion group. “Some of the heavy earth-moving equipment was starting at six in the morning.”
Noise ordinance violations led the group to research the city’s construction restrictions.
According to the city’s noise regulations, building construction is prohibited between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m.
Fullenwellen said even after site workers were warned about their violations, they continued to violate the ordinance.
“They were working well past 11 o’clock at night,” she said. “There was noise coming from the site even beyond 11 when everyone was supposed to be off.”
Lawrence, who has been in his current position for six months, said he was unaware of any violations that took place.
Brown said the number of unsolved issues caused by the development of the school caused some residents to flee the Nicetown-Tioga area.
“The stresses of the building and the construction have already reduced the number of residents in the 3500 block [of Carlisle Street] significantly,” he said. “We started out with 13. There’s probably only six or seven at the current moment.
“People who are already on the margin are really pushed off, and they end up having to move for various reasons. Temple is systematically moving neighborhoods out, so they can end up taking over.”
Lawrence said Temple is a part of the community.
“This is a building that’s going to provide jobs for residents of that community,” he said. “We have an active outreach program through our human resources department to employ our neighbors.
“Temple is the provider choice of health care in North Philadelphia, and this building is going to help us continue with that.”
Fullenwellen said with the university facing cutbacks, the possibility of Temple hiring area residents is unlikely.
“Folks in the neighborhood that thought there was a possibility of getting a job, [the idea has] gone out the window,” Fullenwellen said. “They said they were supposed to be having a job fair. The building opens in May. Where’s the job fair to incorporate the community?”
Lawrence said the job fair is an ongoing process.
“Within our human resources, there’s a person specifically who works on community outreach in the neighborhoods around Temple’s campus to let [residents] know about jobs that are occurring at Temple,” he said.
Fullenwellen said she believes the excavation for the school’s foundation damaged the church’s oil tank, which costs thousands to repair.
“We’ve had a couple sinkholes, and currently, we’re [relocated] because we had a crack in our oil tank,” she said. “We had to convert from oil to natural gas because of the crack in the tank. With all the shifting, more than likely, [building constructors] have created a damage for us.”
Lawrence said planners will revitalize the streetscape along Carlisle Street with new sidewalks, lighting and other enhancements to refurbish homes near the school.
Brown said President Ann Weaver Hart has yet to accept an invitation from Tioga Zion Community Advocates despite “being asked on a number of occasions in non-threatening ways.”
“She just doesn’t seem to think the neighborhood is worth it in any way to her,” Brown said.
“I would say that I need to go up and meet with some of the groups up there as well,” Lawrence said, “but we’re a large organization, and there’s a process to get there.”
“We keep an open invitation to the president,” Brown said. “We would like to host her in a community forum that we will set up, and work with her staff and office to make sure it happens well.”
Fullenwellen said community members’ input should have been considered for the building’s design.
“They think all they have to do is push some crumbs off the table to the neighborhood to make them complacent,” Fullenwellen said. “Unfortunately, it seems like wherever Temple is, they’re always trying to take over that community, and we’re all fighting the same struggle.”
Coupled with uncertainty and disappointment, Johnson does not foresee a partnership between Zion Baptist and Temple.
Instead, she said she believes the university will host “a smiling ribbon-cutting session like everything’s wonderful.”
Brittany Diggs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.