Cleaning up the ghetto


Universal Companies is taking a giant step toward restoring some deteriorating parts of South Philadelphia to the way the organization’s founder, Kenny Gamble, fondly remembers them.

The urban redevelopment conglomerate unveiled its $100-million plan last Thursday. It includes construction or renovation of 400 homes on blighted blocks west of Broad Street over the next four years.

Gamble made the announcement standing before a banner that read: "Come Home to South Philadelphia."

"Pray for Universal so we’ll be a success," he implored, "because if we are successful, everybody wins."

The music mogul-turned-community savior was accompanied by Mayor John Street, Council President Anna Verna, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah and officials from Citizens Bank, Fannie Mae and The Reinvestment Fund, which are financing the work.

The project will focus on neighborhoods between South and Federal streets west of Broad to 19th. About 100 of the new residences will become apartments. The remainder will be sold as single-family dwellings.

About 125 of those will be sold at market rate, priced from $225,000 to $275,000. The rest will be listed from $80,000 to $150,00, which is more in line with the budgets of average city wage-earners, said Universal president Abdur-Rahim Islam.

Citizens Bank, Fannie Mae and The Reinvestment Fund — a Philadelphia-based community-development financial institution providing capital for low- to moderate-income projects — will loan Universal up to $12 million. Citizens also has committed to lending $80 million to people purchasing the homes.

Another $8 million will come from federal tax credits for construction of low-income housing and $3 million will be drawn from the city’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative to pay for the demolition and acquisition of abandoned and vacant properties.

Street proclaimed Universal’s project a victory for both the $300-million NTI program and Operation Safe Streets, which has stationed additional police in the city’s worst neighborhoods to deter crime.

"If we are going to bring back the neighborhoods of this city, we are going to have to clean out the crime and the blight," Street said, "but then we have to bring capital money back into the neighborhoods of this city."

The mayor also reassured potential homeowners that the city’s focus on neighborhoods is here to stay. "The people who line up to buy those 400 houses will know that there is no chance that [they] will buy property today and … later some thugs will decide to set up an open-air drug market."

Universal envisions constructing as many as 2,000 homes in the communities surrounding its headquarters near 15th and Catharine streets. Two weeks ago, company officials celebrated the completion of the first phase of 49 rental units at the site of the old Martin Luther King Towers, near 13th and Fitzwater.

The city imploded the housing project’s four towers in 1999 after years of crime and decay in and around the buildings. Universal intends to complete 247 rowhomes on the site by 2004. The new $74-million neighborhood will be a mixed-income community and include 109 homeownership units.

Gamble made last Thursday’s announcement from Broad and Fitzwater streets, where Universal intends to open a commercial center that could include a satellite school for Washington, D.C.’s Howard University — whose president is H. Patrick Swygert, a South Philly native and Gamble’s close friend.

In his comments, Gamble also emphasized the important role of education in community redevelopment — another area in which Universal has been making significant inroads.

Last summer, the School District of Philadelphia hired Universal to manage William S. Pierce Middle School, 24th and Christian streets, and

Edwin M. Stanton Elementary, 17th and Christian. The district also awarded the organization the charter for Edwin H. Vare Middle School, 24th Street and Snyder Avenue.

That is in addition to the organization’s own Universal Institute Charter School, on the 800 block of South 15th Street, which opened in 1999. And Universal is the frontrunner to build and manage a new Audenried High School.

"Universal Companies is a movement that is going to bring love to people that have not been shown much love here in America," Gamble said. "We are going to help America change."