Can the Schuylkill ever play a role like the Chicago River or Paris' Seine - a source of beauty and vitality that unites riverside neighborhoods like Center City and University City rather than dividing them?
It's a decades-old dream, but key pieces are finally falling into place, according to civic leaders and developers who joined a panel discussion Tuesday at the Union League sponsored by the Central Philadelphia Development Corp.
On both sides of the river, new projects such as Brandywine Realty Trust's 47-story FMC Tower at 30th and Walnut Streets and PMC Property Group's million-square-foot complex planned at 2400 Market St. are paying closer attention than their predecessors to the streetscape and river.
Amtrak and Drexel University have kept a similar focus as they pursue long-standing visions for underused areas around 30th Street Station.
Amtrak offered space once used for parking along Market Street for a University City District minipark called the Porch, now used for concerts, farmers' markets, and even miniature golf. As Drexel moves eastward, it has dubbed the asphalt-heavy blocks west of the station as Innovation Neighborhood - a home for technology partnerships and other business development as well as for education and academic research.
"The time does seem to be right," said Keith Orris, Drexel senior vice president, as he presented a slide depicting the barren block of John F. Kennedy Boulevard west of the station - mostly known now as the stop for BoltBus and Megabus - as a vibrant street lined by a mix of towers, storefronts, and sidewalk restaurants.
Drexel's counterpart to the south and west, the University of Pennsylvania, has worked for years to better link its campus with the neighborhoods across the Schuylkill where many students live.
That effort was helped by forward-thinking reconstruction of the South Street Bridge, said Center City District president Paul R. Levy, who moderated the panel and offered a historical perspective on the challenges of integrating two neighborhoods that he said provide about 55 percent of the city's jobs. He said the rebuilt bridge functions as a pedestrian and bicycle bridge as well as an automotive bridge, "with a lot of amenities we would not have done 20 or 30 years ago."
Even smaller changes can have impressive effects, he said. Levy said two simple changes to the Walnut Street Bridge - adding pedestrian-scale lampposts and removing highway-style signs directing traffic onto the Schuylkill Expressway - have helped discourage drivers from speeding across the span and into University City.
Panelists suggested that Center City and University City will benefit if they continue to be magnets for millennials, the post-1980s generation known as being less eager to drive than its predecessors, and attracted by cities with good transit and amenities geared to pedestrians and cyclists.
"If you believe the statistic or the quote that 75 percent of the labor force will be millennials by 2025, University City is clearly a place you that want to be," said Jeff DeVuono, executive vice president and senior managing director for Brandywine Realty Trust.
DeVuono said a publicly traded development company such as Brandywine cannot get too far in front of the market. But he said that in the decade since Brandywine built the Cira Centre north of 30th Street Station, University City's population has grown from about 42,000 to 50,000. He said the company was confident of the area's vitality - and willing to bet "there will be more people living and working there tomorrow than there are today."
Similar confidence was voiced by Jonathan Stavin, PMC's executive vice president, who offered a conceptual rendering of the 2400 Market St. complex and called it "the most exciting multiuse project that Philadelphia has ever seen."
Stavin said the 300-unit residential section of the project would include a mix of two- and three-bedroom units as well as the smaller apartments more common in the neighborhood. He said the complex would also offer amenities such as on-site retailing that would attract empty nesters as well as younger workers. Although a tenant has not been identified, plans also include a hotel on the site.
But Stavin said a key element of the design was a bridge-level connection between Market and Chestnut Streets - something now lacking along the Schuylkill's east bank - to take advantage of the river's proximity.
Levy said that kind of focus reflects a clear change for the better in developers' thinking.
"People are no longer just building buildings," he said. "They are looking at how the buildings connect the pedestrian fabric of the city."