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The three sites Philly is pitching to Amazon

Leaders think the three tracts will be a draw for the company as it seeks a site that can smoothly accommodate an expanding corporate campus.

The three locations that Philadelphia officials plan to feature in their headquarters-site proposal to
The three locations that Philadelphia officials plan to feature in their headquarters-site proposal to more(File photo and artists' renderings)

A week after Amazon sent cities across North America scrambling to compete for the e-commerce giant’s second headquarters, Philadelphia government leaders are beginning to settle on three locations to pitch most forcefully as the nucleus of a vast regional presence for the Seattle company: The Schuylkill Yards and uCity Square sites in West Philadelphia and South Philadelphia’s Navy Yard.

Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. and Commerce Department officials devising the bid believe the three large tracts in central locations with single owners will be a draw as Inc. seeks a site that can smoothly accommodate an expanding corporate campus in a talent-rich locale, according to a person familiar with the city's approach to the bid but not authorized to discuss it publicly.

The city also will present additional sites that could support satellite offices — such as those maintained throughout the area by Comcast Corp. — as well as uses complementary to Amazon's regional presence, including vendor-company offices and housing for an expected influx of employees.

These include areas along the Delaware River waterfront, in the Callowhill neighborhood north of Center City, and along North Broad Street, as well as ones outside Philadelphia's city limits in such places as King of Prussia, Camden, and Delaware.

Commerce Department spokeswoman Lauren Cox acknowledged in an e-mail that the large West and South Philadelphia sites are among those that "rise to the top" of the city's pitch to Amazon, but she stopped short of confirming them as the headliners. A PIDC spokeswoman referred questions to the Commerce Department.

"We believe the first step of this process is about Philadelphia advancing as a city that fits Amazon's needs, not about a specific site," Cox said.

Officials with the Schuylkill Yards developer Brandywine Realty Trust in Philadelphia; Baltimore-based Wexford Science & Technology LLC, which is developing the uCity Square project; and Malvern-based Liberty Property Trust, the Navy Yard's main developer, separately declined to discuss the Philadelphia's site-selection process but stressed support for the city's bid.

Matt Cabrey, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce's business-retention affiliate, Select Greater Philadelphia, said Amazon's presence would be felt widely if it chose the region for its second headquarters, regardless of any particular locations.

"We are collectively acting and thinking as one large community," he said. "If this project ends up anywhere in Greater Philadelphia, we all benefit."

By highlighting Schuylkill Yards, uCity Square, and the Navy Yard, Philadelphia can demonstrate an edge over most other cities, which don't have similarly large, readily developable tracts, said Jay Biggins, executive managing director of the site-selection consultancy BLS & Co. in Princeton.

"It's hard to come up with sites of the scale required to handle this size development that are already under common ownership and are in densely populated major metros," said Biggins, whose firm has helped companies including Prudential Financial Inc. and Subaru of America Inc. select sites for new headquarters and other facilities.

But Philadelphia is also wise to make sure Amazon knows about other parts of the region that can support development accompanying the growth of a new headquarters campus, if not the campus itself, said Alan Greenberger, the city's former deputy mayor for economic development.

"There's a need for a broader range of office accommodation that comes with the growth of any large company like that," said Greenberger, now a fellow with the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University. "Not every business that may want to be here can afford the kinds of rents that Amazon can afford."

The biggest of the three large sites is the Navy Yard, a decommissioned military base that sprawls over some 1,200 city-owned acres along the Delaware River in South Philadelphia. It already is home to Urban Outfitters Inc.'s own expanding corporate campus, among other businesses.

With the next-largest footprint is the uCity Square proposal for 6.5 million square feet of retail, residential, office, and lab space on 27 acres of existing buildings and vacant land owned by Wexford and the nonprofit University City Science Center along and north of Market Street between 34th and 39th Streets. Companies such as Eli Lilly and NRG Energy have subsidiaries in existing campus buildings, with the Cambridge Innovation Center tech incubator and others coming to the 3675 Market office tower being built at the site.

The most compact of the three is the Schuylkill Yards plan for 8 million square feet of offices and tech workshops, stores, and residential towers on 14 acres owned by Brandywine and Drexel near 30th Street. Brandywine is preparing to start the plan's first component, which includes renovating the former Bulletin office building at 3025 Market St.

Among those sites, all but the Navy Yard would likely have to grow to accommodate the company's eventual needs, which could exceed 8 million square feet — equal to about 6½ Comcast Center towers — at full build out, according to the company's Sept. 7 request for proposals. The Navy Yard also could easily spare the 100 acres — greater than 20 full city blocks — that Amazon said it would need if its second campus were to be built on an undeveloped "greenfield."

"The Navy Yard is expansive," said former city commerce director James Cuorato, now president of the Independence Visitors Center. "You are dealing with more of a blank slate."

The West Philadelphia sites, on the other hand, are closer to the city amenities that Amazon plainly wants nearby — neighborhoods with varying housing stock, transit links, university campuses, cultural attractions — but also are crammed among them, said Bill Luff, founder of the commercial real estate consultancy CRE Visions. That places some limits on what can be built there but also offers greater convenience and connectivity, he said.

For example, Luff said, the city's airport is physically closer to the Navy Yard but accessible via train from 30th Street Station, as are points throughout the region and along the East Coast served by SEPTA and Amtrak.

As for being able to accommodate 8 million or more square feet, Luff said he could envision the planners of Schuylkill Yards and uCity Square adjusting their proposals to include more offices and less space for other uses, while potentially joining forces to share the Amazon campus.

Greenberger, the economic development director, said Amazon's need for space could even help advance Amtrak's plan to cap part of the railyard beside 30th Street Station to accommodate more growth.

"Sitting next to Schuylkill Yards are the tracks," he said. "If you have a bona fide tenant like Amazon around, you probably have the economic clout to start covering those tracks and adding capacity like that."

UPDATE: Philly one of 20 finalists for Amazon HQ2