Study calls for University City, W. Center City 'Innovation District'

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

Philadelphia needs a coherent planning vision to solidify University City and western Center City into a financial and knowledge hub that can help the city prosper, scholars with the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, said in a report to be released Thursday.

Business, government, and academic leaders have ambitious plans for development aimed at supporting research-driven enterprises around Philadelphia’s universities and other institutions, but these initiatives need to be better coordinated to have maximum impact, the study’s authors wrote.

The study calls for a task force to address these development issues. It’s one of several recommendations made by the authors to guide the emergence of an “innovation district” – a dense, dynamic engine of economic activity – from 17th Street to 43rd Street along the Market Street corridor, and south along the Schuylkill to Grays Ferry.

Also recommended: efforts to link institutions in the district specializing in cell and gene therapies with entrepreneurs and business-support services; work to help start-ups across tech fields in the corridor; and attention to the economic needs of surrounding neighborhoods.

“There needs to be a stronger collaboration,” Jennifer Vey, one of the report’s coauthors, said in an interview.

The study is the result of an assessment of the area that began in spring 2015 with the support of 10 Philadelphia institutions and firms, including Comcast Corp., Independence Blue Cross, Drexel University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University City Science Center.

The report’s authors say Philadelphia has an array of enviable assets concentrated in the area they examined, including some of the nation’s best universities and medical-research institutions and a growing technology sector. It also helps that these innovation-minded businesses and institutions are in close proximity to one another, aiding potential collaboration.

But there are obstacles to capitalizing on these strengths, which Philadelphia’s leaders don’t seem to be addressing. Businesses and financiers are doing too little to commercialize university research, while uneven development along Market Street is impeding needed physical connections between Center City and University City.

“Philadelphia has to step up its game, doing more with the assets it has and doing it smarter than it has had to before,” the authors write in the study.

Central to the authors’ prescription for Philadelphia is the establishment of a so-called Innovation Council of city leaders and stakeholders to carry out recommendations for business advancement, neighborhood enrichment, and street-level improvements.

In terms of planning and development, the study backs serious consideration of improved infrastructure to aid transit between University City and western Center City, including the addition of Market-Frankford Line train stops between 15th and 30th Streets.

Vey also said that planners behind the area’s individual development projects, such as the Schuylkill Yards development, planned by Brandywine Realty Trust and Drexel, and the uCity Square project, being completed by Wexford Science & Technology and the University City Science Center, could make the district, as a whole, much better if their efforts were better coordinated.

“By recognizing this geography as an innovation ecosystem and better coordinating the kind of physical development activities that can help fuel that, we think you’ll ultimately have a stronger district that’s better knitted together,” she said.