University City Thrives with Development Projects

Friday, September 16, 2011

from Philadelphia Business Journal

Natalie Kostelni
Staff Writer for Philadelphia Business Journal

The last year has been kind to University City despite the difficult economy and touch climate for development projects.

The neighborhood, where many of Philadelphia’s higher education and medical facilities are clustered, saw this week the opening of Penn Park, a series of athletic fields and open space on 24 acres south of Walnut Street on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus. And, next week, the Wistar Institute breaks ground on a seven-story, $100 million, 89,700-square-foot research building on Spruce Street.

Those are just two of the $2 billion in real estate projects that are either under way or wrapped up in this community that covers just 2.4 square miles.

Other projects include:

  • Campus Apartments constructing a $50 million Homewood Suites by Hilton. A second phase of this project will include a 150,000-square-foot office building.
  • Brandywine Realty Trust completing the renovation of the former U.S. Post Office building and relocation of 4,300 Internal Revenue Service employees into the space.
  • Drexel University proposing a $90 million student housing community and mixed-use project totaling 18 stories an 212,715 square feet on Chestnut Street between 32nd and 33rd.
  • University of Pennsylvania building an $80 million, 80,000-square-foot nanotechnology center


In addition, several new public spaces have been created that add to the vibrancy of University City as well as, for the first time, begin to truly tie the educational hub to the city’s financial center in the Central Business District.

“The [Schuylkill] river has been a moat for a very long time,” said Matt Bergheiser, executive director f University City District.

The investment in commercial projects and public spaces has helped to finally knit the two distinct communities, he said.

Aside from these projects, University City has thrived in other ways, according to Bergheiser and UCD’s annual report, The State of University City. Seventy-two new retailers and businesses have opened up in the neighborhood during the last 18 months, employers have added 12.2 percent of new jobs during the last five years and its populations continues to grow. All the while, the research institutions ontinue to attrat a significant amoung of National Institute of Health and other research funding, which helps it attract top scientists and other academics as well as grow the city’s innovation economy.

“This is a unique place in the city and region,” Bergheiser said. “What is happening here is vital to the city’s future.”

To that end, UCD’s mission has gone beyond its initial “clean and safe” goals.

“When it was initially formed, those were the two biggest challenges," said Craig Carnaroli, chairman of UCD's board and executive vice president at Penn.

"How do we deal with the impact of students living in a neighborhood, cleanliness and security. Now we've seen a strategic vision and there has been an evolution. It's designed to meet the needs of the community and helping them mesh with the institutional contributors."

One of those needs is jobs, Carnaroli said.

As one of the main employment centers in the city and region, UCD has taken on an added responsibility to help connect the people who live in West Philadelphia to this prospering employment node. This year it launched a program called the West Philadelphia Skills Inititive and connects residents to jobs at many of the institutions based in University City. The organization was able to get grants to offset salaries and training costs.

UCD has also established events such as University City Dining Days, Baltimore Avenue Dollar Stroll, and a night market on a vacant parking lot to create an economic impact on the community.

"If we don't evolve with the community, then we don't survive," Bergheiser said.

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