Temple University had a vision for a community center a few years ago, offering social services and prekindergarten classes to neighbors often at odds with the school’s increasing development in North Philadelphia.
The idea came from the College of Education’s dean, newly hired in 2013 and eager to do something about the animosity he saw between town and gown.
“I came to Temple because I really believed there was an opportunity to hit the reset button,” Gregory Anderson said last week. “To partner effectively and empower the surrounding communities.”
Now Anderson’s community center is in the middle of a battle over a 35,000-seat stadium the school wants to build. Neighbors at two recent city hearings rejected the community center, calling it a stadium bribe and criticizing its rollout as another tone-deaf example of the university’s inability to engage with residents. They criticized the idea, the design, and the name: the Alpha Center (a placeholder name, Anderson says, in hope a philanthropist steps up).
“How insulting it is to have Temple University pose this Alpha Center,” said Jackie Wiggins, a North Philadelphia block captain and member of the Stadium Stompers. a group of opponents. “It is nothing more than a carrot and a tease in order to get the stadium. We will not stand for it.”
Temple will need to sign a community benefits agreement with neighbors to move forward with the $130 million stadium proposal. President Richard Englert mentioned the Alpha Center at a recent town hall meeting as one of several ways the school is trying to improve its relationship with the community. But it was in the works long before the stadium plan.
Anderson, who started an early childhood education center at the University of Denver, has been trying to get the center built for five years. Temple has several institutes and programs specializing in social services, he said, but there’s little collaboration among them. Events hosted for the community are often poorly advertised and thinly attended, he said.
“It was the worst best-kept secret in the world, because the community didn’t know we were offering these services and they didn’t see Temple as a place they felt wanted, perhaps, or invited,” Anderson said. “This is an attempt to create a facility connected to Temple, but was also sort of viewed hopefully by the community as connected to their needs.”
The 95,000-square-foot center would sit at 1301 Diamond Street on a Temple-owned parking lot. The university’s students and faculty would partner with nonprofits to offer pre-K to 130 children, a dental clinic, autism screenings, workforce training, and a place to connect with other resources.
State pre-K ratings told Anderson there were very few high-quality pre-K facilities in the area. Studies showed one in five children in the community had experienced trauma but 80 percent lacked access to mental health support.
He didn’t ask many neighbors what they wanted, he said, for fear of drumming up excitement before university funding was secured.
“They say this is a community engagement project, but yet they haven’t engaged the community or asked us any questions,” said Sheila Armstrong, a North Philadelphia resident, at a civic design review meeting last week. Armstrong said she worries that a Temple-run pre-K center would put competitors out of business. She said the neighborhood would be better served by affordable housing.
Other residents questioned whether Temple would do a good job running an early childhood center and how involved largely untrained students would be in the programs.
Mostly, residents opposed the center because it meant the development of another modern building, four floors high, with a Temple “T” stamped out front.
And while its purpose would be to invite the community in, residents complained about the walls surrounding the proposed playground out front.
“To put up a wall is to say, ‘We don’t trust you, keep out,'” said Robert Wynnefield, 69. “It’s saying we feel that there’s a threat coming from a neighborhood that I grew up in as a kid.”
The university will need to present its plans for the center at another civic design review meeting and go before City Council at least one more time. The city has yet to submit all of its proposals to the city for the stadium.
To pay for the center, Temple is seeking a $10 million grant from the state, which the university would match. The Board of Trustees approved initial funding for design plans in October 2017, a year after approval came through for a $1 million feasibility study for the stadium.
Residents have called the timing suspicious. Anderson still hopes it could be an olive branch.
“A lot of folks, no matter what I say, see a connection, and look, I can understand that, but the reality is I didn’t come to Temple University to build a stadium,” Anderson said. “Whether there are other people making that connection above my pay grade, or below, I can’t tell you, but the truth is, I wouldn’t care. I’d want the thing. I believe it’s the right thing to do.”