Philadelphia Business Journal: University City's real estate explosion

Friday, September 27, 2013

Natalie Kostelni

Link to original article

In early 2001, more than $1 billion of new residential and commercial development was underway in University City. That was the first time in decades so much money and so much construction activity was concentrated in the West Philadelphia neighborhood. That apparently was just the beginning.

In its most recently issued annual report, University City District paints a portrait of a community that’s not only thriving but exceeding expectations. It tallied more than $3.5 billion in new or recently completed construction work, has more than 2.6 million square feet of announced or finished projects, and institutions in the neighborhood employed more than 72,000 people. In 2001, the jobs number stood at 50,000. Matt Bergheiser, executive director of UCD, spoke to me about the organization’s annual report and what lies ahead for the neighborhood.

What do you think is the most significant finding?

It’s the land of opportunity here. Our general theme is onward and upward. It seems like every year we build on the amazing things that happened the year before. We broke some barriers and some of it is measured by data. We broke the 72,000 jobs barrier, we broke 43,000 student mark and we have more 6.5 million square feet in development either planned in a real way or under construction and a wave of residential development coming. Almost 2,000 new housing units are coming. That’s about 4,000 to 5,000 additional people or about a 10 percent increase in population by 2015. We continue to be a place where the concentration of economic activity is unmatched in all but a handful of places around the country. It’s important and critical for the city and region. When you get a lot brain power in a concentrated space, good things happen.

What’s driving the increase in housing?

In terms of student population, there’s been growth at Drexel but it clearly has continued to be a neighborhood of choice for young professionals. One clear trend over a period of 7 to 8 years is that you would see graduate students, as a rule, flock to Center City but more and more we’re seeing a major trend of those students living in University City and within walking distance of their campuses.

There’s a lot of construction going on. Has it peaked?

What’s interesting is we’ve traditionally thought of University City being landlocked but I think there are significant opportunities for future expansion and scale around 30th Street Station and that’s where a lot of Drexel’s expansion is taking place. There’s 8 million square feet to be built on what is now surface parking lots in and around there. We look at an entirely new mixed-use neighborhood rising out of the ground there at 30th Street.

And in terms of other parts of the district, there is a spilling over of some of the real economic drivers across the Schuylkill River. Penn’s acquisition of Marshall Labs, CHOP expanding over the South Street Bridge ... I do see room for continued growth.

In your report, you emphasize a “Global University City.” What does that mean?

Our premise is we think what happens in our 2.4 square miles can shape a more global Philadelphia. University City, more than any place in the region, is a magnet for people around the globe. It’s a community with anchor institutions with a global reach and influencing leaders for a more global society. I think there has been this thought that cities by themselves need to become bigger players in the global economy. What we have here provides this great portal to interface in the world and that has been born out by the data. We’re thinking more and more about the role of University City. We also think it’s core to our organization. Real authentic places stand out in the world and investing in great public spaces, creating in quality of life and quality workforce, that’s what great cities are doing across the world to attract people. There so many amazing things happening in University City and we want to start to tell that story collectively and how we can make that whole greater than the sum of its parts and use this as a conversation about what we can do to have global impact.