The Growth of Philadelphia's Second Skyline

Most of the stories in our 20 Years, 20 Stories campaign have focused on University City and West Philadelphia legends, lore, and favorites—from storied restaurants, to the origins of University City District initiatives, to profiles of local arts groups. Today, we turn our attention to the new University City, the University City currently rising along the western banks of the Schuylkill River.

Twenty years ago, the eastern edge of University City was an expanse of concrete: sidewalks, overpasses, on-ramps, and bridges connecting the neighborhood to Center City. Home to 30th Street Station, the main branch of the city’s post office, and not much else, the area was the type of place travelers moved through as quickly as possible on their way to somewhere else.

At a time when the neighborhood was considered undesirable for real estate investment, Drexel grad Carl Dranoff was one of the first developers to take a risk in the area. His plan for a mixed-use retail and housing building, a now-familiar concept that was more novel in the late 90s, was selected by the University of Pennsylvania when they sought to redevelop the former Pennsylvania Railroad freight warehouse at 32nd and Chestnut Streets. The 700,000 square-foot building had formerly been home to General Electric’s missile and spacecraft division. 

Experts thought Dranoff was “nuts” for tackling the project, as he later told The Philadelphia Inquirer in a January 2014 interview. But what Dranoff saw—and what eventually transpired—was the development that would follow throughout the area from players like Penn, Drexel, CHOP, and Amtrak, and he wanted to be in on it from the start. Dranoff’s gamble became The Left Bank. Speaking to Philadelphia Magazine about the project, Dranoff said, “We created a destination, not just a building: 20,000 square feet of retail space, including shops and restaurants. 100,000 square feet of office space, which Penn made its facilities headquarters, and 260 parking spaces.” Originally developed for $58 million and opened in 2001, the site was recently valued at $120 million and sparked development to follow.

The Left Bank proved that redevelopment was a viable option in eastern University City, and it was now up to another player to test out the viability of new construction in the market. Here enters Brandywine Realty Trust, the company who has made the biggest impact thus far in eastern University City, and just might redefine the entire region...though more on that later.

The Cira Centre, Brandywine Realty Trust’s 29-story skyscraper, was a long time in the works. The parcel just north of 30th Street Station had been targeted for development dating back to the 1960s when it was on a short list of possible locations for what eventually became Veterans Stadium in South Philadelphia. In the 70s, the location was considered as a site for an exposition celebrating the bicentennial, and as a possible home for the Pennsylvania Convention Center; in the 80s real estate developer Gerald D. Hines proposed an office, hotel and shopping center; and in 1992 a stadium was once again proposed, and once again dismissed.

Brandywine first announced their plans for the Cira Centre in 2002. Amtrak, seeking to support projects to increase ridership and earn revenue from real estate holdings, selected Brandywine as the developer of a state-of-the-art tower designed by César Pelli, connected to a new nine-story parking garage. Taking advantage of its location within a Keystone Opportunity Improvement Zone, Brandywine secured leases with Dechert LLP, Attalus Capital, and Woodcock Washburn for nearly 375,000 square feet of combined office space.

Upon its completion in the fall of 2005, the Cira Centre became Philadelphia’s first new skyscraper in 13 years. In her review of the building, famed Philadelphia architecture critic Inga Saffron wrote that the Cira Centre’s glass façade “Helps marry the delicate modern tower with the weighty, neoclassical train station,” and also called the building a “shape-shifter,” since it seems to change shape depending on which angle it is viewed from.

The Cira Centre immediately stood out in Philadelphia’s skyline, both for being the first skyscraper in University City, and for its innovative lighting design. Because the building’s architects didn’t want light fixtures on the outside of the building, the light designer, Cline Bettridge Bernstein, created a wall of light using 1,500 26W RGB fixtures capable of changing color to create patterns on the building’s façade. The now-iconic lights create shows and displays to reflect the city and other creative uses—a red “P” when the Phillies won the World Series; green for the Eagles; and even an enormous game of Tetris.

But the Cira Centre’s biggest accomplishment wasn’t the stunning building or the innovative lighting; rather, this new, modern building set the tone for the further development of the neighborhood, and eventually Philadelphia’s second skyline.

While Brandywine was putting their stamp on the neighborhood, the University of Pennsylvania continued to spur eastern University City’s revitalization. They partnered with Dranoff on another renovation, this time a building on the National Register of Historic Places. Dranoff gutted the former headquarters and showroom for the Hajoca Corporation, a plumbing supply and manufacturing company, at 3025 Walnut to transform the building into the home of WXPN and World Cafe Live, a performance and restaurant space, which opened in 2004. 

After purchasing 24 acres from the U.S. Postal Service, Penn released a master plan for the neighborhood called Penn Connects. The ambitious proposal outlined ways to “redefine the relationship of the University and the City by developing an urban design strategy to integrate the entire eastern area along the Schuylkill River with the core of the campus.” Projects included in the proposal were the Annenberg Public Policy Center, the HUB at 3939 Chestnut, the Singh Nanotechnology Center, the incredibly ambitious and successful Penn Park, and a partnership that accelerated the transformation of the area along the Schuylkill River: the so-called Post Office Redevelopment project with Brandywine Realty Trust. 

This highly ambitious plan called for a rehab of the former U.S. Post Office Main Branch building at 30th and Market, and an extension of Brandywine’s Cira brand with two new towers composing a new complex called Cira Centre South.

First, the Post Office: built between 1931 and 1935, this six-story, Art Deco building served as Philadelphia’s main postal distribution center until 2008, when operations moved to a facility near the Philadelphia International Airport. Brandywine purchased the building for $28 million; three years and $225 million in renovations later, they welcomed the IRS as the tenant of the 862,700 square-foot building with the signing of a 20-year lease.

Meanwhile, Brandywine plotted Cira Centre South. Plans in a 2007 proposal called for two towers separated by a parking lot topped with a green roof. The intention, according to Penn, was to expand the University City commercial district and “continue to be a major gateway for the region with its existing rail and automobile transportation systems enhanced by streetscape and access improvements.” Projects like Penn Park, UCD’s own Porch at 30th Street Station, and the landscaped plaza outside the IRS building aimed to improve the streetscape, and Brandywine’s proposed towers – which eventually contained luxury apartments, office space, and retail – directly added to the commercial appeal of the district.

And it worked. In 2013, a few years before Cira Centre South opened, Inga Saffron reported that West Philadelphia office spaces were commanding higher rents than Center City buildings, just 15 years after banks turned Carl Dranoff down for financing because they didn’t see a market in University City.

Working again with world-class architects, built in stages, and completed in 2016, Cira Centre South came to include Evo, the elevated park Cira Green, and the 49-story FMC Tower, named after the Food Machinery Corporation, the anchor tenants of the building. The complex added luxury housing for students in Evo, 4,000 parking spots, two swimming pools, a restaurant by a Michelin-rated team (Walnut Street Cafe), more than 625,000 square feet of total office area, and 268 ultra-luxury residential units and extended-stay corporate suites at AKA University City.

The success of the Cira projects led Inga Saffron to declare that the trio of Cira buildings has “shift[ed] Philadelphia’s business district from Center City to the university area.” She praised the overall aesthetic of the towers, declaring, “At night, when colored lights dance across the facades of the city’s new, 21st-century skyline, Philadelphia really does appear to be a world city,” concluding “The Cira district is an enormous accomplishment.”

Brandywine liked the FMC Tower enough to relocate their headquarters to the building in 2017. About the move, Brandywine CEO and President Jerry Sweeney said, “By moving into the City of Philadelphia, and specifically the FMC Tower at Cira Centre South, we are making our headquarters more accessible, and encouraging our employees to take advantage of the wealth of amenities that Cira Centre South and the City of Philadelphia offer.”

Being a super-desirable location helps too. In fact, a December 2017 report by investment management company Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL) listed the stretch of 30th Street between Walnut and Arch as the 16th most expensive street in the nation based on the price of U.S. office space. In the report, JLL notes that “The delivery of FMC Tower on 30th Street in Philadelphia has cemented University City as one of the most desirable office locations in the region’s core. That street is now the most expensive in Philadelphia, a city in the midst of a tech, media, education and health expansion.”

One might think this would be enough for Brandywine. In under 15 years, the company had grown from a suburban developer focused on office-parks to a powerhouse reshaping the eastern edge of University City. But it looks like this is just the beginning of their impact on the neighborhood since their most ambitious plan so far hasn't yet officially begun. 

Schuylkill Yards is Brandywine's master-planned, multi-phase innovation community that’s being developed near the Cira buildings on grounds owned by Drexel University. Their intention with the project is “To unite the professional, financial services nature of Center City with the medical, life science, and educational infrastructure in University City by creating a leading hub of innovation, technology, globalization and economic development.” The initial phase of the 20-year development plan will create 5 million gross square feet of mixed-use real estate nestled in a 10-acre site near Drexel’s campus and 30th Street Station. The ambitious Schuylkill Yards earned it consideration as one of three possible homes for Amazon's HQ2 in Philadelphia during the corporation's search. 

What started as a risky investment twenty years ago has turned into a historic turnaround for the neighborhood. And now with Schuylkill Yards, Amtrak’s 30th Street District plan, Pennovation, and nearby uCity Square, we’re seeing the potential for a further cementing of University City as the region’s economic and technological powerhouse. If the last 15 years of development are an indicator, there’s little doubt that 15 years from now we’ll see a neighborhood even further transformed.