Demolition of University City Townhomes begins after delays, surprising Philadelphia community members

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Demolition of the University City Townhomes began on Monday, marking a new stage in the community’s fight against displacement.

Around 20 Penn and Philadelphia community members, as well as former residents of the UC Townhomes, gathered at the property on 40th and Market streets on Tuesday to witness the process. Although demolition was originally slated to begin at the end of last year, the UC Townhomes site remained undisturbed until Monday.

By Tuesday afternoon, half of a structure had been razed, and a bulldozer sat next to a pile of debris. Multiple workers were present on site.

In a statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian, Philadelphia City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier spokesperson Harrison Feinman wrote that Gauthier’s office learned of the demolition on Tuesday, and was not aware of who was carrying it out and when it began.

“We knew this day would come, but that doesn’t make it any less painful. My heart aches to see the University City Townhomes come down,” Gauthier — whose district includes Penn, the UC Townhomes property, and part of West Philadelphia — wrote in a statement to the DP.

The UC Townhomes are owned by IBID Associates Limited Partnership, which in 2021 announced that it would not renew its annual affordable housing contract with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. IBID Associates spokesperson Kevin Feeley wrote in a statement to the DP that demolition began “in earnest” on Monday — despite previous plans to begin such efforts before the end of 2023.

“Demolition of the current buildings is a necessary step in the future development of the [UC Townhomes] site,” Feeley wrote. “There is no dispute that the buildings are at the end of their life cycle and allowing them to remain standing poses a threat to the safety of the site and the surrounding community. For these reasons, demolition must and will continue until completion.”

Penn professor of English Chi-Ming Yang — a longtime member of the Coalition to Save the UC Townhomes — was present at the demolition site on Tuesday. In a written statement to the DP, she said witnessing the bulldozing was “absolutely tragic,” and that no former residents of the UC Townhomes were notified of when demolition would begin.

“I only learned about the demolition this morning, when a former resident walked by and saw the bulldozers,” Yang wrote.

At the site of the UC Townhomes, former residents and Penn community members expressed deep sadness about the demolition process.

“They told us all [residents] about what was happening, but it still took a toll to me because I didn’t ever think they were going to really do it,” a former UC Townhomes resident of 43 years, who identified herself to the DP as Miss C, said.

Feeley noted in his statement that the “relocation” of former UC Townhomes residents was completed last fall. However, on Tuesday, personal items such as a stroller and clothing remained within the buildings.

College sophomore Eliana Atienza, who was present at the site, said that the UC Townhomes were a reminder for the Penn community that “gentrification [and] displacement don’t just exist in the theories we teach in our classrooms.”

“It’s really, really heartbreaking to see the bones of what was once a thriving, thriving community,” Atienza said.

In front of the partially demolished building was a small community garden, which Fossil Free Penn has provided contributions for, according to College senior and FFP member Sparrow Starlight. They noted that the garden — which now appears overgrown and untended — used to be a “symbol for hope” but is now a representative of a reality “forced upon the [UC] Townhomes.”

“I think the act of bearing witness and why we’re here today is important to see those little details and like, like truly understand the depth and the humanity of what is happening,” Starlight said.

The UC Townhomes were originally constructed in 1983 to provide affordable housing for residents of the neighborhood — several years after the destruction of West Philadelphia’s Black Bottom in the 1960s. In 2021, IBID Associates announced that it would not renew its contract with HUD, putting nearly 70 families at risk of displacement.

The ensuing legal fight included multiple deferrals of the deadline for residents to vacate the Townhomes. Gauthier proposed a bill in late 2021, which the City of Philadelphia passed in March 2022, that prohibited any demolition of the site for 12 months. After the prohibition expired, the City issued a demolition permit in December 2023.

In April 2023, IBID Associates and the City of Philadelphia reached a settlement agreement that required the company to transfer nearly 24,000 square feet of land to the City for the future development of 70 permanent affordable housing units

The settlement — which stemmed from a lawsuit filed by IBID Associates in response to Gauthier’s legislation — also called for the arrangement of a fund sponsored by Penn, Drexel University, and other University City institutions to assist displaced residents. It was met with mixed reactions from residents, including many who felt that the affordability standards of the allocated property were not sufficient.

“Together we fought so hard to prevent the breakup and displacement of this community,” Yang wrote to the DP. “The city did not value preservation and rehabilitation of this historic site.”

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