Friday, January 15, 2016

Innovating a Place for Innovation

A few weeks ago I took the subway to the end of the line and decided to check out the Navy Yard. I've mentioned the district on Philly Bricks before, but aside from renderings and development news, I knew very little about it. After all, with the exception of architectural curiosity, I never had any reason to go there. My understanding led me to believe it was a quasi-urban office park, and in a way it is, but one that works better than any other. 

Unfortunately the subway ends a few, long blocks north of the formal Navy Yard gates. Because of the city's gentle slope towards the Delaware River, water tables are too high to extend the Broad Street line all the way to the Navy Yard, at least underground. But despite the boring walk past some of the largest surface parking lots I've ever seen and under the roaring interstate, passing through the gates is a journey into a very unique place.

Massive decommissioned Naval vessels loom overhead, moored to concrete docks with knotted ropes the size of a body builder's bicep. These rusted hulks aren't what you'd expect to find in our local beehive of innovation, but the location's history is exactly what sets it apart from other Millennial brainstorming hubs, and they're what make it so exciting.

Venturing further into the sprawling campuses, along the glistening headquarters donning names of soon-to-be-known pharmaceutical companies, and URBN's historic warehouses, it quickly becomes apparent that Philadelphia's Navy Yard is our own Cupertino. Big Pharma is big business, and Philadelphia owns it. The Navy Yard is taking what makes places like Cupertino work, only it's been dropped in the middle of a major city. 

While tech commuters treck to the Silicon Valley, the Dulles Corridor, or King of Prussia, or resign themselves to live where they work, the Navy Yard has taken what works in those suburban pockets of genius, condensed it, and put it in the middle of the action. 

As a fifteen veteran of the technology realm, I can tell you from experience exactly why large companies opt for sprawling campus headquarters in lieu of pompous Center City skyscrapers, and it has little to do with cash. There's a certain amount of prestige that comes with working in a place like Comcast Center or 30 Rock, but that's where it ends. To get the job done right, an agile work environment requires numerous meetings every day and that doesn't jove with elevator banks and stacked floors. Techies commute to the 'burbs because the architectural spaces that makeup Google, Facebook, and Apple foster a creative mind. 

Large footprints and grassy grounds separate employees from the distractions of the urban American city, and allow planners to strategically create the specific kind of distractions that keep those employees engaged: jogging trails, fitness equipment, outdoor conference spaces. When you leave GSK or URBN on your lunch break, you're not entering the hectic and hostile streets of Center City Philadelphia, a world that will immediately take you away from your work. Instead, you're entering a corporate wonderland designed to make your break a relaxing reprieve that doesn't take you away from your work. 

With room to grow, the Navy Yard is offering a microcosm of the environment that makes places like Cupertino work, and offering it at Philadelphia's doorstep. As word spreads and the Navy Yard continues to fill out, it would not be surprising if some of the nation's greatest innovators come home to the Workshop of the World. And why not? Will all the pluses of the Silicone Valley unfolding within the confines of one of the nation's biggest cities, what advantages to suburban campuses continue to offer?

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