Thriving University City is key to city's growth

Friday, October 24, 2014

If you've noticed the half-dozen or so construction cranes that define the University City skyline these days, you may sense that the foundation of Philadelphia's next-generation economy is rising before our eyes. In many ways, an entirely new neighborhood is taking form on the western banks of the Schuylkill.

Through this past summer, 82 percent of all office construction in the region was happening in University City, on just 0.02 percent of the region's land mass. Over five years, 10 million square feet of real-estate projects have been developed in the neighborhood. That's a $4.5 billion investment, establishing University City as home to 50,000 full-time residents, 43,000 students, 73,000 jobs, and $1 billion in annual research and development expenditures. Office occupancy has swelled to an enviable (and regionally unrivaled) 96 percent. Retail thrives on former Walnut Street parking lots and in erstwhile academic buildings on Chestnut.

But it's how University City will continue to advance in the next decade that really bears watching.

We are in but the first phase of Philadelphia's biggest bet yet to leverage its university and health-system strengths into job-generating commercial growth: a transformation of the neighborhood's eastern edge from academic and medical center to an integrated, mixed-used economic engine.

And how we shape this area as some Philadelphia-specific version of high-tech magnet Kendall Square in Cambridge, Mass., will be a city-defining endeavor in the coming years.

The early returns are promising.

Penn's South Bank, Drexel's Innovation Neighborhood, the Science Center's ongoing expansion, and the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's investments in commercializing novel gene therapies all point to a future inwhich emerging ventures, talented researchers, and established firms locate near world-class universities and health systems, and at the midpoint of a transit corridor that links 17 percent of the nation's population and 32 percent of its Fortune 500 companies.

In addition to the advantages of location, University City has a chance to further differentiate itself from other would-be innovation hubs across the country. Above all, it's anchored in an authentic place.

To the west, a neighborhood of international cuisine, Victorian homes, and eclectic retail beckons. To the east, accelerating efforts to connect Center City and University City point to a not-so-distant future with one continuous central business district, from Front Street to 40th.

Sense of place and strength of connection, in fact, are flourishing every day. Investments like the Schuylkill River Trail, the Porch at 30th Street Station, and Penn Park serve as a shared down payment on a West Philadelphia extension of William Penn's vision of a thriving city knitted together by verdant civic squares and a vibrant public realm.

Moreover, against the backdrop of a national conversation on inequality, University City's growth ensues with equity and opportunity as intentional elements in its design.

A federal Promise Zone abuts University City to the north; its potential course is still to be determined, but its founders envision a virtuous cycle of inclusive job growth and locally sourced and trained workers to meet employers' needs. Individually, institutions like the University of Pennsylvania have built nationally acclaimed engines for local procurement. Collectively, Drexel, CHOP, Penn Medicine, and the University of the Sciences partner to train and hire residents through the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative.

Obstacles exist, and there will, for sure, be missteps. Tremendous pressure on real-estate prices will require thoughtful strategies, already underway in some quarters, to ensure that the social fabric of neighborhoods remains intact. And the yawning gap in business formation means that Philadelphia begins this economic development race many lengths behind. In 2013, for example, San Francisco Bay Area companies attracted $6.9 billion in venture capital investment, and Boston area companies netted $3.1 billion, while Philadelphia's meager $347 million was good for only 11th place among U.S. metros.

Whether and how we begin to close this divide will drive the availability of talent and resources required to feed Philadelphia's greatest civic obligations, from quality schools and public safety to thriving cultural institutions and pension solvency.

But what's happening in the 2.4 square miles immediately west of the Schuylkill augurs a Philadelphia that gains greater advantage from its special mix of "eds and meds" and transportation assets. In a city hungry for private investment, job growth, and opportunity, the economic possibilities stemming from an ascendant innovation zone in University City - complementing a thriving Center City and a resurgent Navy Yard - begin to offer a foothold for the 21st-century metropolis.

Matt Bergheiser

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