It was most definitely not a quiet summer on the Temple University campus. In a few crazy months, the president was fired, the provost was replaced, and the school's widely admired chief architect and planner abandoned ship to take a similar job at another school. Yet, somehow, Temple's plan for a football stadium on Broad Street refuses to die.
At the same July meeting where board members voted to dismiss Neil D. Theobald as Temple's president, they doubled down on their commitment to the stadium by appropriating an additional $250,000 for architecture and traffic studies. Despite an already difficult relationship with the neighborhood, Temple remains intent on doing what almost no urban university in America has done: inserting a 35,000-seat stadium into a dense residential area. Temple says moving the Owls from Lincoln Financial Field to its own stadium will save it a bundle in rent.
I was going to wait to write about the project until after the traffic report was made public this month. But when its release was delayed, I decided to undertake my own on-the-ground study. After walking the proposed site and adjacent streets, it became clear that Temple's board could have saved a big chunk of change - $1.5 million and counting - if members had first performed the same exercise.
Certainly, many people have voiced valid concerns about the stadium that have nothing to do with traffic or urban design. As Gilbert M. Gaul, author of Billion-Dollar Ball, has written, big football programs frequently become entertainment juggernauts that siphon money from academics. Universities that succumb to football-as-religion are also notorious for shortchanging other student-athletes who just want to compete for fun. Wasn't it just three years ago that Theobald tried to ax Temple's rowing teams?
My issue is with the location Temple has chosen for the project, a two-block site between Broad and 16th from Berks to Norris. Temple's campus has been inching west of Broad Street, and the stadium would run smack up against a fragile, African American neighborhood that has been desperately trying to hold its own against "dormification" by student housing developers. Sometimes called North Central, it is a storied place that has nurtured Philadelphia's black middle class, people like the Rev. William Gray Sr. and his son, U.S. Rep. Bill Gray; Cecil B. Moore; Helen Dickens, Philadelphia's first black, board-certified obstetrician; and filmmaker Louis Massiah.
Temple's architect, Curtis J. Moody of Moody Nolan, told me he was studying ways to reduce the stadium's physical impact on the neighborhood, from submerging the playing field - or "bowl" - below sidewalk level, to screening the east and west facades with classroom and office buildings. But no matter how well it might be designed, any structure that spans two full city blocks will naturally be a behemoth - and not the only one in the vicinity. The stadium would be a continuation of a row of massive buildings that include the Liacouras Center, McGonigle Hall, and their accompanying garages. Who wants to walk around such superblocks or the dark canyons they create?
On Broad Street alone, this lineup of athletic facilities would create a 1,600-foot-long wall. Even if Moody manages to enliven the project with some ground-floor retail, there's still the problem of dialing down the scale along Norris Street, where the stadium would come face to face with rowhouses, including a few ornate stunners listed on the historic register.
The most mind-boggling part of all of this is that the stadium would necessitate closing a block of 15th Street, disrupting one of the most important corridors in the Philadelphia grid.
Grids, as one traffic engineer reminded me, are flexible networks. If one route is blocked, you can always shift to another. But what makes 15th Street significant is that it is the only numbered, southbound road between Broad and 26th that runs uninterrupted into Center City. All the other numbered streets have gaps or dead-end at the long wall of Girard College, forcing motorists and cyclists to wind through neighborhood streets.
Estelle Wilson, who has lived on 15th Street, just above Norris, since she was a child in the 1940s, believes the closure is reason enough to scrap the stadium, and notes the street is a major feeder into I-676. Of course, drivers could always take Broad Street, but it has jams even on a normal weekday. "It makes no sense to close one of the few streets that goes directly to Center City," adds the Rev. William B. Moore, pastor of Tenth Memorial Baptist Church.
It's worth noting that two decades ago Temple tried to annex part of 13th Street to expand its campus. That road performs a similar role to 15th Street for travelers heading north, and Council rejected the idea. Though there are certainly streets that can be given up to improve the quality of life in Philadelphia, 15th is not one of them. The impact of the closure would ripple through the whole city.
Temple is counting on a large proportion of fans coming to the stadium without cars. Many students now live near campus, and the university has a great array of SEPTA options. As officials point out, some 45,000 people converge on the campus every day. Still, it would be no small challenge managing those who drive to games for tailgating parties, or the students who will use games as excuses for day drinking. The same concern with nuisance behavior was one of the issues that derailed an earlier stadium proposal for the Phillies at Broad and Callowhill, a site much closer to I-676.
Temple officials point to New Orleans' Tulane University as a model of how a football stadium can be integrated into an urban area. But Wilson isn't buying it. She and several neighbors were brought down to Tulane by Temple for a weekend. "The stadium was jammed against people's backyards. It was horrible," she says. "And Tulane is not an inner-city area. "
Not only has Wilson chosen to remain in the neighborhood where she grew up; so have several of her children and grandchildren. They've hung on through redlining, riots, disinvestment, the crack epidemic, and the influx of student housing. But the stadium, she believes, would be the death knell for the neighborhood.
It's great that Temple is now determined to field a winning football team. But providing its players with an appropriate home shouldn't ruin Philadelphia for everyone else.