West Philadelphia Transformations

Jessica Baumert, Prema Gupta, Kira Strong, Nancy Rogo Trainer

A Philly Girls Do Good conversation with:

  • Jessica Baumert, Executive Director of The Woodlands
  • Prema Gupta, Director of Planning and Economic Development at University City District
  • Kira Strong, Vice President of `Community and Economic Development at the People’s Emergency Center
  • Nancy Rogo Trainer, Associate Vice President, Planning and Design at Drexel University

On a crisp Friday in September, Danielle and Sylvia gathered four mover and shakers of West Philadelphia around small plates at Zavino in the recently redeveloped block of Chestnut Square (we recommend the “Stache” pizza, by the way). The setting was the perfect backdrop for a conversation about how West Philadelphia has transformed over the last few years and where it’s headed from here.

Chestnut Square

Principal drivers in that transformation are the University City District (UCD), Penn, and Drexel. Nancy Rogo Trainer commented that part of her newly established position at Drexel is to work collaboratively with other local organizations and accomplish change together. She’s particularly looking forward to working more closely with Prema Gupta to reinvigorate University City’s public realm.

Just recently, UCD embarked on a pedestrian study of eastern University City with Jan Gehl Studio New York. Prema also led the initiative to introduce pedestrian plazas on Woodland Avenue and Baltimore Avenue. The ongoing and popular success story for UCD is The Porch at 30th Street Station. Prema is continuing to learn lessons from activity at The Porch, such as gathering information about how it is used, and then using the findings to inform its development as well as their other projects. Now UCD is checking out ways to perk up the SEPTA stations and 37th Street Pedestrian Mall.

The Woodlands

Prema is also partnering with Jessica Baumert of The Woodlands. Enter into the pastoral edge of University City at The Woodlands Cemetery on Woodland Avenue, only to discover the historic estate of William Hamilton! Jessica is excited about the 40th Street Trolley Portal, where a major renovation is currently being designed by Andropogon Associates—right at The Woodlands front door. The project includes new programming, such as a café, improved pedestrian crosswalks, and wayfinding signage to The Woodlands. This important UCD project will create a proper front entrance to The Woodlands, inviting the public in for historic tours and cultural events throughout the year.

Proposed 40th Street Trolley Portal

Moving further west, the People’s Emergency Center (PEC) has been expanding beyond its social services mission to revitalize neighborhoods just west of UCD. In fact, the two organizations’ boundaries generally meet at 38th Street, an important north-south corridor in West Philly. PEC’s mission and impact is not in University City District, but Kira Strong sees signs of UCD’s transformative energy moving west. Lancaster Avenue is the major commercial corridor in PEC’s area, and it is also the physical connection to Drexel’s campus where it terminates at 34th Street. Kira is hopeful that more neighborhood destinations will slowly populate west Lancaster Avenue as the buzz of development along the corridor continues to grow. Nancy pointed out the historical significance of Lancaster Avenue and regards Drexel as an important stakeholder in the success of that corridor.

Hawthorne Hall

Kira shared excitement about being a stakeholder with the representatives of local registered community organizations, Drexel, the Science Center, and UCD, in the collaborative re-visioning of the University City High School site between 38th and 36th at Lancaster Avenue and Market Street. All are confident that the redevelopment of the super-block site will be a significant bridge between the activity of University City and the communities to its west and north. The development brings together innovative, economic, and educational goals. According to Nancy, this process aims to illustrate that “innovation and social change should not be mutually exclusive.”

With regards to social change and innovation, Kira and Jessica, meeting for the first time here, connected on a literacy program called Mighty Writers. PEC helped the Mighty Writers find leasable space and Jessica is interested in getting them to help tell the stories of The Woodlands. Business cards were traded and a new friendship was formed around shared values.

When asked what is the greatest challenge facing West Philadelphia today, nearly everyone said “available funds.” In addition to that, Kira said she wants the positive transformations to “lift all boats” and avoid creating a further divided city. She elaborated that without good public schools, the local work force is unskilled and cannot substantially contribute to the improvement of the neighborhoods.

We asked what project or effort each woman is most proud of after having been on the job for less than 4 years apiece (except for Kira who has an impressive 10 years at PEC). Nancy—only ten months into her appointment—was lauded by Prema for creating an outdoor student lounge along the food truck depot at 33rd and Arch Streets. Nancy said it is an inexpensive but effective campus public space that is well used by the students. For Prema, she is thrilled with the success of The Porch. Jessica, despite leading a master plan effort for The Woodlands right now, said she was most proud of the fact that when she mentions The Woodlands people don’t say “what’s that?” anymore. She attributes this new recognition to a strong promotional and programming strategy enacted by her and The Woodlands Board of Trustees. Kira, who has had the longest stint, said that she was most proud of diversifying the activities of the development corporation and promoting development through fun and engaging activities—such as getting PEC to participate in Parking DayNight Market (17,000 people attended on August 14!) and other corridor events.

Night Market

That was a fine way to sum up the conversation: a passionate group of women leaders are transforming West Philadelphia through innovative and creative ways that bring people together and get them engaged in the public realm like never before.

—Danielle DiLeo Kim

Thanks for reading our PGDG Blog! This is our final entry in a series of monthly conversations from the Philly Girls Do Good inaugural class of 2013-14. Thank you to all the inspiring women who participated and shared their good work in Philadelphia. Upcoming blog posts will feature the class of 2014-15. Stay tuned!

Philly Girls Do Good! Logos Locus Partners