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Universities, hospitals remake West Philadelphia

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Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, located right across the Schuylkill River from Center City, is still in heavy use by Amtrak and SEPTA, but it feels a little bit like an out-of-place relic. The station’s heavy pillars, boxy limestone exterior, grand atrium, and multiple levels of tracks indicate clearly to everyone who passes through that the building is  a monument: to an industrial city, to railroad travel, and, most importantly, to the company that for decades shaped much of the city and built the station: the Pennsylvania Railroad. But that company went bankrupt forty years ago, and much of the area around the station is today a sea of surface parking lots, rail yards, maintenance buildings and low-lying, vaguely dingy office buildings.

Over the coming years, that will likely change in a big way, and not just because Center City is once again bustling. Drexel University has acquired 12 acres of underdeveloped land around the station and plans to turn them into an “Innovation Neighborhood” full of densely built residential high rises with ample on-street dining and retail, academic buildings and high-end offices. Drexel is also working with Amtrak to find a developer interested in capping and building over the rail yards north of the station.

This is just the latest example of a major and well-documented trend: universities and hospitals taking taking the lead in shaping the city. (The same trend can be seen in Chicago, Baltimore and elsewhere.) West Philadelphia, which 30th Street sits right at the edge of, has long played host to Drexel, the University of Pennsylvania and its hospital, and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and certainly those institutions have shaped it for better and worse as it has grown over the years. But never in recent memory have they undertaken so much development so quickly, or so much development unrelated to their core institutional functions, as in the last fifteen or so years. These institutions want to remake a whole area of the city.

Drexel’s “Innovation Neighborhood” will likely never look quite as exciting or perfect as it does in the renderings featured in the university’s master plan, but there’s no reason to think most if not all of the proposed development won’t go ahead. This isn’t just a pipe dream, it’s part of a carefully planned and long-running initiative by the university to increase enrollment and raise its profile — in a lot of ways, to become more like Penn.

Drexel’s current campus looks nothing like it did twenty years ago. There are tall new academic buildings, and tall new dorms, new and expanded athletic facilities, and sizable new outdoor gathering spaces. Some buildings are still under construction, including a 24-story residential tower, the university’s tallest yet. Drexel wants to leverage its city location by urbanizing its somewhat drab campus, and it is explicit about that in its 200-page campus master plan: “We’re in Philadelphia, a hotbed of thought… that’s why I came,” an unattributed blown-up quote declares, just before the planners suggest, quite unrealistically, that vibrant intersections and streets with lots of outdoor seating can “become Drexel’s signature version of the campus quadrangle.”

The current remaking of the area directly around 30th Street goes back to the early 2000s, when Amtrak helped develop Cira Center, the striking 29-story office tower lodged between two rail yards next to the station that looks something like an angular block of crystal. That building was originally imagined as the first of four such towers around the station. Now, eight years after the first tower opened, the second is finally under construction. Unsurprisingly, the new tower, which will rise to 33 stories, will consist of upscale housing marketed at the wealthiest of Penn and Drexel students. (Amenities include a rooftop pool with fantastic views of the city.) Construction on the third tower, which may rise to 47 stories and become one of the tallest buildings in the city, could begin later this year.

The area has been further boosted by a number of other developments nearby — most interestingly, the new 24-acre Penn Park a couple of blocks south. That park was the cornerstone of the first phase of “Penn Connects,” Penn’s campus master plan since the mid-2000s. Like Drexel’s plan, Penn’s focuses on integrating the university into the city, drawing students to local neighborhoods and neighbors to (certain) public spaces at Penn. Already the most gentrified parts of West Philadelphia are those that directly abut the Penn campus, where the streets are lined with hip restaurants and stores and all the pedestrians look like they’re the sort of professional, clean-cut people who will work their way up the corporate ladder in no time and also do things that are “socially responsible.”

The University City District, an organization which helps maintain and improve the area and is funded in large part by Drexel and Penn, has been tracking all the development. In its 2013 report on the “state of University City,” released just a few weeks ago, it found that the area has seen $3.5 billion of development in the past few years. 2.6 million square feet of residential real estate has recently been completed or is under construction, and the district’s population is likely to increase 10 percent over the next three years. Average income has climbed 36 percent, inflation-adjusted, over the past twenty years. Rents are on the rise, and the median home value, inflation-adjusted, has tripled since 2000.

It is this last statistic that brings to mind the bad side of gentrification, or, as it’s sometimes mockingly called in West Philadelphia, “Penntrification”: the destruction of neighborhoods and the driving out of poorer longtime residents. The area may become safer and better maintained, but it may also become less affordable and less interesting. Some residents are fed up with the universities’ agenda. (A bumper sticker reading “This is West Philly. ‘University City’ is a marketing scheme” became popular a few years ago.)

There is validity to worries about the universities pushing out those they decide are not the sort of people they want around their campuses, especially since Penn has a history of doing just that. But it would be unfair to dismiss all the current development so quickly. Virtually none of it is replacing existing affordable housing or local businesses, and the home value increases it has been producing are nowhere near high enough to force out large numbers of longtime residents. And a lot of what the universities do really is good for locals — for example, helping keep the streets safe and clean, upgrading parks and other public spaces and helping local schools. Large-scale development is also just exciting for the city. Much of Philadelphia has been stagnant for too long; it’s good to think, for the first time in a long time, that a large part of the city will look radically different in ten years than it does now.

But it is also important to see the development for what it really is, which is self-interested expansion and promotion of the universities. Though they would near admit it, the universities are modern Philadelphia’s equivalent of huge companies like the Penn Railroad, and their development strategies accordingly bear close resemblance to one another: build up a brand, move up in the world, beat the competition. The proposed “Innovation Neighborhood” is to Drexel what 30th Street was to the railroad. (What’s really unfair, given the universities’ manifestly corporate behavior, is that they don’t pay taxes.)

Even the most seemingly community-oriented project of all, Penn Park, is hardly a true public space. Just across the river, the much less fancy Schuylkill River Park is packed every day with local residents eating, playing basketball, walking their dogs, and the like, while the perfectly manicured and much less used Penn Park seems to serve primarily Penn athletes and others affiliated with the university. Part of the problem is that there is no good way to walk between the neighborhoods across the river and the new park, a problem that was originally supposed to be solved by a bold pedestrian bridge across the river. But that bridge, the piece of the plan that really was for the public, hasn’t been built and now appears to have been quietly dropped from the campus master plan.

But disingenuousness aside, the park is just a great work of architecture — a living transformation of space that pushes those who experience it to see the form and function of the city, neighborhood and park itself in new ways. The park, in being an achieved and stunning product of a city institution’s ambition, shows why the sort of development the universities are pursuing can be worth it. It is expansive and comfortable nestled between large industrial structures, intimate and yet not at all kitschy. Intelligent use of vertical space makes this park. Most of the land is used for Penn tennis courts and sports fields, but the park still feels properly pedestrian, in large part because the green areas and paths between the fields change grade constantly throughout the park, revealing new views of fields and new secluded areas. And the best part of the design, by the well known landscape architect Michael van Valkenburgh, are the three long, dramatic pedestrian bridges that connect the low-lying park up to the Walnut Street bridge, cross the Amtrak tracks and cross under an old (but still used) elevated railroad structure. These light metal structures seem to dart around the old industrial ones, creating a subtle interplay between the city’s past and its present, subtly suggesting the university’s similarity to the railroad that once ruled this land and weaving together the different grades and levels of development in a way no other project in the area has managed.

As a new wave of development hits, it is worth hoping that the universities and hospitals do as well with it as Penn did with its park. Really excellent architecture has the potential to grapple openly with the transformation of West Philadelphia, and is a real asset for residents of the city, albeit in a limited way.

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