PHILADELPHIA BUSINESS JOURNAL • Change Agent: Matt Bergheiser of University City District

Friday, January 26, 2018

Change Agent: Matt Bergheiser of University City District

One might think that when compiling a list of those disrupting real estate and economic development, a roadblock if not a dead end might be right around the corner. Change doesn’t come with much frequency to those sectors but change is afoot in real estate and economic development. Here is one of the local leaders on the vanguard of that change.  


Matt Bergheiser, president, University City District


Bergheiser came to University City District in 2009 and ever since has elevated the mission of a special services district. While bettering areas with place-making efforts large and small, such as the Porch at 30th Street Station, and improving the 40th Street Trolley Portal, have enhanced University City, the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative Bergheiser rolled out beginning in 2010 is an innovative attempt to improve the lives of those residing in the community. The program has what would seem a simple mission: Connect people who live in West Philadelphia to the institutions that make it one of the main employment centers in the city and region. The endeavor has the potential to have a long-lasting socioeconomic impact on the neighborhood and the city.  


 What drives you? If I were to stand on the roof of my office at 40th and Chestnut, I could look to the east and see a dazzling, aspirational Philadelphia. In roughly one square mile in eastern University City, we have 80,000 jobs, $5 billion in recent construction and another $10 billion to come over the next decade. If I turned to the west, I’d see aspirations and potential that are yearning to be realized. In our five neighboring ZIP codes, 81,000 people live in poverty. How we accelerate growth and development as a neighborhood and as a city, and how we leverage the opportunities afforded by that growth to address the problems of poverty are the challenges that drive me every day.


Why do you feel the fundamental need to change things? I have worked in the civic sector — at the intersection of private investment and public interest — for two decades. It is a great gift to wake up every day and think about how to make Philadelphia a better place, and when you’re given a great gift in life, it’s your responsibility to make the most of it. 


How do you see the future of the region? The Amazon HQ2 process was instructive not because of what Amazon could potentially bring to Philadelphia but more because of what Philadelphia can bring to Amazon and so many others. Think about how Philadelphia has changed over 20 years. Intentional, audacious actions by anchor institutions, private investors, civic organizations and city government have reinvigorated Center City, transformed University City, and re-established the Navy Yard as one of the region’s key economic assets. We have now amassed contiguous parcels of high-value land for future development in the city’s central core and at its central transit hub, as few other municipalities have. We’ve become a magnet for millennials, which I believe is a leading indicator of future economic prosperity. Philadelphia is set up for growth in ways it hasn’t been for decades, and we are poised like never before to ensure that this economic transformation benefits all of its residents.  


How receptive is the region to fundamental change? Is it easier or hard to invoke change here? Change isn’t easy anywhere. And in some quarters of every city, including Philadelphia, there’s an old guard that holds onto old ways. But I think Philadelphia’s reputation as a place resistant to change is overstated. I didn’t grow up in Philadelphia, but I’ve lived here for 23 years. And I can say with certainty that there have never been more smart, committed, visionary people across all sectors — business, government, nonprofit, institutional — working collaboratively to make Philadelphia a better place. But we shouldn’t settle for promoting ourselves as a business location of choice simply because we’re at the geographic midpoint of other coveted urban locations. We have a talent base, a set of intellectual and cultural assets, and a magical mix of density, proximity and diversity that most places would envy. What we owe ourselves — and what we owe Philadelphia — is to continue to hold the highest possible bar for success, and to continue to push ourselves to the highest possible aspirations for a great city on the rise.