An aging monument of Philadelphia’s industrial past is poised to become a harbinger of the city’s future as a life sciences hub.

After 18 years of lying dormant, the Budd Co. Hunting Park plant, which at its prime employed some 7,000 workers who made parts for automobiles and trains, is undergoing a transformation into a 2.4 million-square-foot life sciences campus in the hopes of reinvigorating 25 acres north of West Hunting Park Avenue between Fox Street and Wissahickon Avenue.

The developers hope, too, that the campus will become a focal point for life sciences manufacturing in the Philadelphia region. With a robust roster of research and medical institutions, Philadelphia has emerged as a major center for life sciences, with a particular foothold in cell and gene therapy. After all, researchers here produced the first FDA-approved therapies in the field, where cells and genes are modified to treat disease.

Real estate investment firm The Plymouth Group is leading the Budd project after purchasing the property in 2019 for $6.5 million. The first phase of the site’s redevelopment, Budd Bioworks, will see two existing buildings converted into 300,000 square feet of drug manufacturing space and 150,000 square feet of lab and office space.

The rehabilitation of the two properties is expected to cost up to $50 million and is fully financed through Centerbridge Partners, a private investment management firm. Included in that cost are environmental remediation, the installation of a new roof and HVAC, and enhancing power and water capacity to keep up with biomanufacturing requirements.

The Budd redevelopment is the largest in a handful of projects that will strengthen Philadelphia’s national share of the life sciences industry. In the Navy Yard, Ensemble Real Estate Investments and Mosaic Development Partners are at work on two biotech buildings that will create as much as 220,000 square feet of lab, office, and drug manufacturing space. A 120,000-square-foot building on the former Hahnemann University Hospital campus, acquired by Iron Stone Real Estate Partners, will house researchers and be called Race Street Labs. And Penn Medicine is expanding its gene therapy program in a 150,000-square-foot facility once operated by GlaxoSmithKline in King of Prussia.

A 2020 study by JLL, which specializes in real estate and investment management, found that the Philadelphia metro area is the sixth-largest life sciences hub in the country based on factors including field employment, venture capital funding, and lab supply.

But the industry’s real estate needs are far from met. JLL Philadelphia managing director Tyler Vandegrift said there’s about 2.5 million square feet of demand for life sciences facilities in the Philadelphia region, with more than one million square feet of that demand specifically for manufacturing space.

Joseph Fetterman, who heads up the Budd Bioworks leasing team, said that purpose-built lab space in Philadelphia is “in very, very short supply.” This has led drug development companies to seek space out of the immediate area. “It means that the work, the jobs, the revenue is all leaving the market,” said Fetterman, head of the life sciences group for commercial real estate company Colliers International.

Sam Woods Thomas, director of life science and biomanufacturing for Philadelphia’s Department of Commerce, estimates that there are about 40 life sciences companies in the Philadelphia region. The growth in the area’s industry has spurred companies to look further afield from University City and the Navy Yard to areas like Allegheny West, where the Budd plant is located.

Thomas believes that the growth of Philadelphia’s life sciences manufacturing will bring needed jobs. When life sciences companies reach the manufacturing phase, which Budd Bioworks will provide space for, that’s “when jobs associated with these facilities become a lot more accessible to people who don’t have Ph.D.s,” Thomas said. “The jobs in these facilities are manufacturing jobs that pay a good living wage. We can actually start telling Philadelphians that this science thing that’s been going on here for years is actually going to benefit them in a really direct way.”

Budd Bioworks can house from two to 10 biotech firms, depending on their square footage requirements. The team behind the development is still in conversation with prospective tenants, who may be wooed by its strategic location near major roadways and research institutions. Though it’s too early for employment figures, the developers hope the larger Budd campus, which may include a retail and residential component, will employ thousands, as in its former heyday.

The Budd Co. Hunting Park plant opened in 1915 and was the site where the first all-steel automobile wheels and stamped steel car bodies were produced. The plant also made stainless steel passenger rail cars along with missiles and space vehicles. During World War I, under a government mandate, production shifted to support the war effort. The site produced 25,000 M1917 doughboy helmets daily, according to an unofficial history of the plant by Robert Masciantonio.

By the end of World War II, Budd employed 20,000 people across its three plants. The Hunting Park plant closed in 2003 after the company announced it would consolidate production in Detroit. At the time of the announcement, 600 employees remained.

Although the Budd company is no longer affiliated with the site, The Plymouth Group founding partner Michael Davis said he thought it was appropriate to maintain the name. “This is a place where men and women achieved incredible things,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to turn back on a facility that was part of the beating heart of the city, and to do that thoughtfully.”

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