Hybrid Center Aims at Exponential Impact on Philadelphia Neighborhood

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May 10, 2016; Philadelphia Inquirer

Last Monday, officials and community members gathered to celebrate the opening of the South Philadelphia Community Health and Literacy Center. The 96,000-square-foot complex combines a pediatric primary care center operated by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), a city-operated health clinic, a branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, and a city playground and recreation center. All these elements have been present in the neighborhood for years, but each faced challenges with its existing facilities, which were scattered across several blocks. Now, with all four concentrated in one square block and a focused effort to link their respective services, the collective impact of the center is expected to far exceed the sum of its parts.

The ground floor of a new LEED-certified three-story building houses a state-of-the-art library branch (opening soon), which replaces an outdated facility and offers about one-third more usable space than the old building; 150,000 customer visits a year are expected. The second floor is home to a city health clinic known as Health Center No. 2, which mostly serves adults, formerly housed in a “leaking and rusting” building that would have been difficult to renovate. The clinic currently handles about 50,000 visits a year, and expects the demand for its services will continue to grow; about 80 percent of clients live below the federal poverty level. The top floor will house the neighborhood’s CHOP pediatric practice, which realized five years ago that it needed more room. The new space is expected to accommodate 35,000 patient visits a year. CHOP’s search for land to build on was the catalyst behind the new center. Adjacent to the three-story building will be an outdoor playground with a rain garden and a shiny new city rec center (opening next month).

The logic behind this innovative partnership is compelling, particularly in the low-income, heavily-immigrant community the center will serve:

  • As noted in the Inquirer article, “Evidence shows that children are healthier if their parents are in good health, and officials are hoping that the grown-ups will take advantage of the visit to the pediatric clinic to get their own medical needs taken care of.” And, “The link between good health and the physical activity that will be available at the DiSilvestro Playground and Recreation Center is obvious.”
  • The most interesting twist in the mix is the library—one of 49 neighborhood libraries in the city’s system—which will have “a special health section [that] will help people manage their well-being.” University of Pennsylvania staff are training the library staff to help community members research their own health issues. The library will also offer literacy classes for adults and children, in a neighborhood where residents speak more than two dozen languages; as well as computer classes and Wi-Fi. (NPQ has previously reported on the Free Library of Philadelphia’s evolving facilities and services, including a culinary literacy center at its central location.)

Tom Storey, a physician who directs the Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s system of primary care clinics, explains why the components of the new center belong together: “Education is essential to becoming successful. And being successful isn’t just from a monetary standpoint, but also from a standpoint of physical health.”

Funding for the $45.2 million project represents a high level of cooperation across numerous public and private organizations. CHOP has contributed $30 million, roughly two-thirds of the total. The city has invested $2.2 million, and is leasing the land to CHOP for a nominal fee. The library has invested $1.3 million. The balance is being funded through New Market Tax Credits. A 2015 case study in the Philadelphia Social Innovations Journal (PSIJ) stated that CHOP’s investment was funded by a combination of hospital operating revenue and private donations; and that the New Market Tax Credits were provided through Chase Community Equity LLC, Chase New Markets Corporation, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, City First Bank of D.C. and Commonwealth Cornerstone Group, Ltd.

The PSIJ case study explains that the South Philadelphia Community Health and Literacy Center builds on an earlier CHOP project, the Nicholas and Athena Karabots Pediatric Care Center in West Philadelphia. In addition to outpatient medical services that support 64,000 patient visits a year, that 52,000-square-foot center “also houses community programs such as Early Head Start, Reach Out and Read, Community Asthma Prevention Program, domestic violence education, medical home care coordination and the Home Health Initiative, as well as a dedicated community room for use by neighborhood organizations.”

The case study also underscores the complexity of this type of a collaborative project, and cites two key lessons learned along the way:

  • The need to build an organization to support high-level decisions: “To realize the vision for the Center, the City and CHOP were required to develop infrastructure that would incorporate complex plans, budgets, agreements, regulations and more.”
  • Learning how and when to compromise: While CHOP has plenty of experience working in multi-tenant facilities, this was its first experience serving as the developer of a multi-tenant construction project. “CHOP was now required to manage and merge aspects of each individual organizational culture to harmonize the construction process.”

On paper, this hybrid project already looks to be a winner. And it’s likely that many of the deepest benefits of the shared space won’t be fully realized until each of the four entities has settled into its new home. Once the “cohabitation” becomes routine, those who work at the center and the community members who use its services will undoubtedly find additional ways to connect the dots across health care, literacy and recreation.—Eileen Cunniffe