University City District adds placemaking to its goals

Friday, September 28, 2012

Over the last 15 years, University City District has seen its role evolve and grow from its original mission of trying to keep the West Philadelphia neighborhood clean and safe and now has added another duty to its roster: placemaking.

Placemaking is a philosophy that ties the people in a community to a public space, and whether through activities or other events, the space eventually becomes a destination. When successful, it can be powerful and transformative to a neighborhood.

“Placemaking capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, ultimately creating good public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness, and well being,” according to the Project for Public Spaces.

The Porch, an oasis on a slab of concrete between 30th Street Station and the former post office building where the Internal Revenue Service now makes its home, is UCD’s first placemaking attempt. Last November, UCD put colorful cafe tables, lounge chairs and umbrellas as well as planters on the space that totals just over a half-acre. It also hosted a series of events there including a beer garden, miniature golf, yoga classes and concerts. Now firmly established as part of the fabric of the neighborhood, the Porch serves as an outdoor park, a spot for lunch and a place for respite. It turned out to be wildly successful. “A lot of that sends signals about the kind of place we are,” said Matt Bergheiser, executive director at UCD. UCD has raised $1 million to experiment with the Porch over the next couple of years, and is looking for other areas of concrete to placemake. While early in the process, the organization is eying the trolley portal at 40th Street and Baltimore Avenue. On a smaller scale, UCD has begun to incorporate “parklets,” or taking a parking space and establishing pop-up cafes on them. It also turned what it called a “lifeless traffic island” on Woodland Avenue into a pedestrian plaza.

Placemaking has become increasingly important to the creative class and knowledge economy, the people who live and work in University City and its employers, said Harris M. Steinberg, executive director of PennPraxis, the clinical arm of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design.

“Placemaking is really about an authentic urban experience and it’s coming on the heels of decades of redevelopment in the city, particularly after World War II, when we wiped out the authenticity,” Steinberg said. “If you’re competing with San Jose, or competing with New York, or competing with Boston and you want to attract the best and brightest who can go anywhere, it’s an authentic sense of place that they want. They want the real deal and not the Disneyland version of it.”

Placemaking and redefining a sense of place is a little like alchemy, Steinberg said. There are some definite components, such as putting people first and understanding sociology, but much of it comes through experimentation, trial and error.

“UCD has taken the ball and run with it,” Steinberg said. “They haven’t pioneered it but perfected it.” Tied to the concept of creating more spaces that help to define University City is finding more ways to attract entrepreneurs to the neighborhood. While the neighborhood’s institutions, such as the Science Center, University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University and others have constructed buildings to house entrepreneurs and incubate companies, UCD sees another of its roles as helping to make University City a “cool place to be and a place for entrepreneurs,” Bergheiser said. “That’s the next big thing for Philadelphia.”

Nothing underscored that more for Bergheiser than when First Round Capital, the early-stage venture-capital firm founded by technology entrepreneur Josh Kopelman, decided this summer to relocate its headquarters to University City from West Conshohocken. It leased 10,000 square feet in a building on 40th and Locust streets that once housed Urban Outfitters Inc.’s first store. “It’s a bellwether event for us,” Bergheiser said.

When he announced the move on his blog, Kopelman said it was predicated on “The Darwinian Evolution of Startup Hubs,” in which entrepreneurs create a few hits, each of which produce entrepreneurs that go on to build a few more successful companies, and the process replicates itself to the point where an area becomes what is essentially Silicon Valley. Kopelman sees the kernels of that percolating in Philadelphia.

Original Article