New Spin on Work-Life Balance: Education Nonprofits and Teachers Share Living Space

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July 20, 2015; Philadelphia Inquirer

Last month NPQ reported on Literacenter, an innovative coworking space for literacy-related nonprofits in Chicago. Today we present a similar concept with an extra twist: a coworking space for education-related nonprofits in Philadelphia, in the same complex as below-market-rate apartments for teachers. Billed as “an urban oasis for teachers and nonprofits,” Oxford Mills opened in 2014 and features nearly 40,000 square feet of office space and 114 apartments—all of which are presently occupied.

Teachers like Alicia Montague-Keels get to live in a hip, urban space—complete with coffee shop, resident lounges, business resource rooms with copy machines,  a fitness center, free on-site parking, and rents that are about $200 to $400 lower than comparable units in the city’s steadily improving South Kensington neighborhood. But as Montague-Keels explained, as nice as those amenities are, that’s not why she chose to live at Oxford Mills.

“I love it because people are fighting for the same things that I’m fighting for,” she said. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison last year and joining Teach for America, Montague-Keels landed as a fourth-grade teacher in a charter school in North Philadelphia.

In some ways, Oxford Mills owes its existence to Teach for America. The project was undertaken by Philadelphia-based D3 Real Estate Development  in collaboration with Baltimore-based Seawall Development Company. Seawall had previously developed two similar complexes in Baltimore—The Union Mill and The Miller’s Court. As reported in What Weekly, one of Seawall’s principals, Donald Manekin, found his inspiration for these education-oriented, mixed-use developments while serving as a board member for Teach for America. The model allows socially conscious developers like Seawall and D3 to check off several boxes at once:

  • Providing affordable housing with nice amenities for teachers, in the hopes of making them want to continue to work and live in urban areas;
  • Renovating historic properties in ways that not only allow them to remain important to their communities, but can actually help to revitalize neighborhoods and build civic pride; and
  • Fostering clusters of nonprofit organizations, whose work can inform each other and who can benefit from lower rents, shared conference and meeting spaces, and landlords invested in their success.

The teachers value the sense of community and the moral support they find around the copy machine, the coffee pot, and the fire pit. The nonprofits at Oxford Mills—which were intentionally curated by D3 partners Greg Hill and Gabe Canuso over a three-year period—include Teach for America, the charter network Young Scholars, and an arts education organization, Artwell, that relocated from West Philadelphia, where it had outgrown its space, to become one of the original tenants in the renovated space. In addition to the benefits of shared conference and meeting spaces, the staffs of these organizations see themselves as like-minded, and are already finding ways to collaborate. According to Artwell executive director Susan Teegen-Case, “We’ve been thrilled beyond our expectations, even. It’s a really great place to live and work for us. It’s an exciting venue for our mission in action.”

So is this a thing? Are other subsets of the nonprofit sector cohabitating—for work and/or for living spaces? NPQ would love to hear about other examples of nonprofit multiuse developments.

—Eileen Cunniffe