Schuylkill Yards is the latest Philly project with workforce-diversity aims

Drexel University and Brandywine Realty have partnered to create the Schuylkill Yards innovation district next to 30th Street Station.

Brandywine Realty Trust is adding its planned Schuylkill Yards development in University City to a growing list of Philadelphia projects that aim to spread the benefits of the city’s building boom to a wider swath of residents than its disproportionately white building-trade membership rolls.

As a condition of the approvals it needs to start work on the decades-long office, retail, and residential project, Brandywine has pledged to impose a financial penalty on contractors who do not live up to its work-site diversity goals. The penalty would be equal to 0.1 percent of a contractor’s fee, chief executive Jerry Sweeney said.

The workforce-participation program is part of a five-year, $5.6 million package of community commitments made by Brandywine to secure zoning changes for the first phase of the Schuylkill Yards plan, which involves the development of 14 acres owned by the company and Drexel University near 30th Street Station.

The program echoes the city’s efforts to boost worker diversity as part of its $500 million Rebuild initiative to repair and renovate as many as 200 parks, recreation centers, and libraries with revenue from the tax on sweetened beverages.

The hiring program, called PennAssist,  surrounding construction of University of Pennsylvania Health System’s New Patient Pavilion at South 33rd Street and Convention Avenue, meanwhile, aims to diversify job sites by helping graduates of the city’s technical schools obtain union membership.

All three projects are set to be discussed at a news conference Tuesday by Sweeney, Mayor Kenney, and representatives of Penn Medicine and of the Philadelphia Building Trades Council.

In an interview late last week, Sweeney said he was confident in his approach because of the money that contractors are being required to put on the line as a guarantee that the goals will be met.

“There’s a carrot and a stick, where contractors will be faced with a real enforcement mechanism by Brandywine if they don’t meet” their targets, Sweeney said. “We’re trying to make the connection point that there’s a real cost to a contractor for not fulfilling their obligations.”

But Bruce Crawley, founder of the African American Chamber of Commerce in Philadelphia and a member of the advisory committee of the city’s Office of Economic Opportunity, said more must be done, such as penalizing contractors who break their diversity promises by suspending them from future municipal contracts.

“These wrist-slapping kinds of penalties don’t change the dialogue at all and won’t change the outcomes that the city needs,” Crawley said. A 0.1 percent penalty “is no disincentive whatsoever to people who have excluded and marginalized people who ought to be in those workforces.”

Schuylkill Yards’ initial phase, which received zoning approvals from City Council on Thursday, calls for 1.6 million square feet of labs, offices, shops, and dwelling units west and northwest of 30th Street Station, beginning with the conversion of a parking lot at 30th and Market Streets into a public park and renovation of the former Bulletin building at 3025 Market St.

The work, which could begin as soon as late summer, follows months of discussions with community leaders aimed at maximizing the project’s benefits to surrounding neighborhoods, Sweeney said.

Brandywine’s pledge to neighboring communities includes a $675,000 contribution to an apprenticeship program to help West Philadelphia residents enter building trades and $750,000 to compensate area community-benefit corporations that team up with the company as co-developers on Schuylkill Yards building projects, according to a prepared outline.

Also included is $3.1 million, to be administered by a consortium of community organizations for spending on affordable housing, small-business development and other priorities, as well as a $500,000 contribution to what is being called the Grow Philadelphia Fund, a low-interest credit line to help minority entrepreneurs get businesses off the ground.

The Grow Philadelphia Fund also will benefit from Brandywine’s plan for encouraging contractors to meet diversity goals, in that the 0.1 percent deposits will be lent to the fund for the duration of a project. Contractors that fail to meet Brandywine’s work-site diversity threshold will forfeit those deposits, Sweeney said.

The guidelines call for 60 percent of all contracted laborer hours and 30 percent of contracted skilled personnel hours to go to African American, Hispanic, and Asian workers, according to the text of the legislation passed Thursday.

Sweeney said it was time for the city’s development community to take workforce participation seriously.

“For the first time in several decades, the city is experiencing some growth,” he said. “So one of the real opportunities is how do we make sure the growth that the city is having benefits the broadest possible population?”

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