Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Other Center City

Shortly after I moved to Philadelphia, ground broke on the Cira Centre. I was living in a modest studio apartment in University City and coming from DC, my impression of a skyline was Arlington, VA or college road trips to Richmond. Needless to say, Philadelphia wowed me. But still, as Cira Centre rose, I thought, "What?? A skyscraper in West Philadelphia??"

After Cira Centre grew synonymous with 30th Street Station and the west bank of the Schuylkill River, developers throughout University City became less shy about building vertically. Today, from Belmont Plateau, Philadelphia's skyline is as dramatic west of the Schuylkill as it is east of the Aramark Tower. 

For years, proposals for Cira Center South, even Cira Centre North were floated. They were fun to look at but seemed like a dream. We were sure that University City would never grow taller than Cira Centre. 

But with the FMC Tower, part of the Cira Centre South we never thought we'd see, one of "Philadelphia's tallest" will be west of the Schuylkill. And that's significant.

Let's face it, skyscrapers are built to make a statement. Working in one is a laborious hassle if your day is full of meetings. Once a building exceeds 300 feet, you can easily spend several hours a day in elevator banks. FMC Corporation needed space, sure. But its landlord, Liberty Property Trust, encouraged FMC to relocate to the yet-to-be-built Cira Centre South because Liberty knows University City is open for business, and they want other businesses to take note. 

And take note they will. Amtrak commuters from DC, Wilmington, and all points south will be greeted by FMC's crystalline skyscraper, backdropped by our growing Center City skyline. But what's more interesting than our growing Center City - the Comcast Innovation & Technology Center, 1919 Market, East Market, and the LDS Church's residences on Vine - is University City's true introduction into Philadelphia's skyline.

We're no longer a city bound by two rivers, we're a city straddling the Schuylkill. 

University City office space now costs more than office space in Center City, and University City continues to grow. And for good reason. University City is easily accessible by regional rail, the Market Street El, and the surface trolleys. It's also right on the Schuylkill Expressway, Baltimore Avenue, and Market Street, and chock full of parking. While that doesn't bode well for New Jersey; the Main Line, Upper Darby, and Media are essentially in University City's backyard. That's a lot of people. And they don't have to pay a toll to get here.

What's ever better, it doesn't seem that businesses are trading Center City for University City. With the exception of the FMC Corporation, University City is rising on its own, either growing its current base or attracting new. 

With ample sites for future development, low NIMBY intervention, and a precedent to build taller, University City's skyline may challenge Center City's in ten years or so. Imagine a complex on par with Liberty Place occupying the surface lot at 38th and Market. Now imagine what that would look like from Fairmount Park. 

As residents of Philadelphia, it's easy to discount University City. It's full of college kids. It's not "local." And perhaps that's why it's growing so rapidly. Unfettered with local politics and fueled by academic cash, University City is growing in isolation, and doing so at a fantastic rate. But while locals may be ignoring much of the growth west of the Schuylkill, the growth isn't ignoring us. 

From Drexel's proposed Innovation Neighborhood, plans floating to cap the railroad tracks north of 30th Street Station, and University City's hospital district, University City is organically growing as an extension of Center City's gridded urbanity. Pedestrianization has always been key, and development is seamlessly integrated into the streets leading to the bridges that connect University City to Philadelphia's core. 

It's exciting, and to more seasoned Philadelphians, perhaps a bit scary. Development has begun to snowball, and in a good way. As for University City, sure, it still contains a swell of college students between 30th and 40th Streets, but the way that swell is being developed is bridging West Philadelphia's residential neighborhoods with Center City. 

Once inner-burbs of Philadelphia, neighborhoods like Spruce Hill and Powelton Village are going to soon find themselves part of the cohesive, walkable fabric of Greater Center City. And that truly is a great thing.

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