Changing Skyline: University City reinvents itself - again - with apartments, offices and shops

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A second office tower, to include residences and retail, at 37th and Warren, has sexy angles and a solar- panel-embedded facade. The building will overlook a public square designed by Olin.

Maybe the third time will be the charm for the place we've grown used to calling University City.

Originally an African American neighborhood known as Black Bottom, the portion between Market Street and Lancaster Avenue was a tight mesh of rowhouses and small businesses until the early 1960s, when it was leveled to provide growing room for Penn and Drexel. As a token, the city set aside a full block on 36th Street to build a cutting-edge, science high school. It lasted all of 33 years.

Today, that 14-acre site has new, private owners who are preparing to reinvent this corner of West Philadelphia yet again. The gargantuan University City High School - sold by the school district in 2014 in a desperate effort to raise cash - has already been reduced to a field of raw brown earth, a blank canvas for the neighborhood's dreams. In March, the lead developers, Wexford Science + Technology and the University City Science Center, will begin its transformation by etching new streets onto the sprawling property.

In restoring the two streets - 37th and Cuthbert - the developers are attempting to undo some of the damage of the urban-renewal period, when the enclave was fused into a massive, single-use superblock. Their plan is driven by the same urban trends that have inspired the redevelopment of 12th and Market, where a monolithic retail block is now being reborn as a mixed-use district laced with small streets, apartments, and offices.

The key difference is that the West Philadelphia project is powered by the tech sector rather than retail. The site is also more closely tied in to a dense rowhouse neighborhood, Powelton Village. That's a huge advantage, but it also means the developers will have to step carefully to ensure their buildings don't bigfoot their neighbors.

Wexford and the Science Center essentially will be creating a mini-neighborhood out of whole cloth. (Only a fragment of Black Bottom remains, a single row of houses on Warren Street.) Though the developers have a free hand to arrange the pieces on the site, their challenge is to make a collection of shiny new buildings feel like a real place rather than a three-dimensional version of a corporate business plan.

To emphasize the fresh start, the developers have banished University City in favor of uCitySquare, a name that, unfortunately, also has a generic ring. We'll see how that goes.

The broad outlines of the master plan are more promising. The arrangement was sketched out by the Baltimore planner Ayers Saint Gross, with an assist from noted architect Jeanne Gang, best known for the undulating facade of her Aqua tower in Chicago.

The planners recommended using the new streets to break the superblock into four manageable pieces. Interestingly, 37th Street will be situated slightly east of its original alignment, to make it easier to walk from Powelton Village to Penn. Cuthbert will provide a direct link from Drexel to Presbyterian Hospital. A public square designed by Olin will hold the center and provide much-needed park space, drawing office workers from the south, residents from the north, and students from the east.

At this point, only two of the four main parcels have fixed uses. As part of a deal negotiated with Powelton Village, the developers hired ErdyMcHenry to design a mid-rise apartment house fronting Lancaster Avenue. The building, which should start construction this summer, will have a ground floor lined with retail, although Wexford vice president Joseph A. Reagan Jr. concedes some lots may temporarily host other uses, such as makers spaces, if the company is unable to find enough shops and restaurants as tenants.

Drexel has claimed the easternmost parcel for two small neighborhood schools (K-5 and 6-8) to serve what it hopes will be a growing population. It expects that the buildings, modeled on Penn's Alexander School, will play host to an array of community services, and it has hired Rogers Partners, who designed the much-praised Henderson-Hopkins school in East Baltimore. But there is no start date because Drexel wants the financing to come out of the tight city and school budgets, through an abatement tool called tax incremental financing.

Nearly all the remaining land will be devoted to the kind of offices and labs that serve start-up companies and feed off the proximity of the universities. In that sense, uCitySquare is really an extension of the Science Center, a financially successful, but architecturally dull, group of mid-rise offices that has made its stretch of Market Street one of the most boring environments in Philadelphia.

Reagan and Science Center president Stephen S. Tang vow that this time will be different. Unlike the first generation of buildings, these should have transparent ground floors with restaurants and retail spilling out onto generous, tree-lined sidewalks. They've penciled in space for a supermarket between the central square and 38th Street. If they can pull it off, they could establish a continuous row of retail on both 37th and 38th Streets. Perhaps most impressive, they plan to put all the parking underground.

None of this would be happening without the profound shift in tastes among the people who work in what's increasingly called the innovation sector, says Glenn Blumenfeld, a principal at Tactix, which helps companies find office space. The new generation of smaller tenants, heavily populated by millennials, want smaller, more intimate work environments with lots of amenities. They have little interest in Center City's button-down trophy towers, which are now more than 30 years old. As a result, he predicts uCitySquare offices will be in high demand.

But while the master plan makes it clear that Philadelphia has gotten better at urbanism, it's not clear yet whether architecture will enjoy the same leap. The kickoff building, a 14-story tower designed by ZGF Architects and called 3675 Market, is a blocky glass box, saved from pure banality only by a pop-out bay that grabs the facade like a clamp. It goes into construction this spring with the Cambridge Innovation Center as the lead tenant. Meanwhile, the Science Center's effort to improve the landscaping of the 37th Street pedestrian passage, which connects to uCitySquare, is little more than brick pavers and scattered chairs.

Perhaps the design quality will pick up as the developers get going. A second office tower by ZGF, at 37th and Warren, shows more ambition, with its sexy angles and solar-panel-embedded facade. There's also talk of tucking some apartments into the office towers at the center of the site, to keep the area active 24/7.

What a shame the city allowed the high school's sale without making affordable units part of the deal, especially as the Science Center is now lobbying the state to make the site eligible for Keystone Opportunity Zone tax breaks. So much public money has been poured into these 14 acres - for building the high school, for eminent domain payments to homeowners. Let's hope this time Philadelphia gets it right.

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