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Giant step in Philly growth

By John Fry and Jerry Sweeney For far too long, Philadelphia was a punchline, never getting the respect it deserved, even from city residents. Not anymore.

Artist’s rendering of the future view from 30th Street looking at the planned Drexel Square parks.
Artist’s rendering of the future view from 30th Street looking at the planned Drexel Square parks.Read moreSHoP Architects PC / West 8

By John Fry

and Jerry Sweeney

For far too long, Philadelphia was a punchline, never getting the respect it deserved, even from city residents. Not anymore.

Philadelphia today is synonymous with urban comeback and growth. Over the past 25 years we've gone from being a symbol of urban distress to being a leader of America's urban renaissance.

Our world-class institutions of higher learning and medical science have been joined by expanded cultural and sports facilities and a vibrant restaurant scene. Construction of new office and residential towers is expanding the city's skyline and its tax base from Center City to University City. Population has been growing for the last 10 years after half a century of decline.

With all this welcome growth, though, Philadelphia also includes some of the poorest urban neighborhoods in America. We don't want Philadelphia's success story to devolve into a tale of two cities. We can't afford to develop one small city for the educated, upwardly mobile, and mostly white, surrounded by a much larger city whose residents are under-educated, under-employed, poor, and predominantly nonwhite.

That's the threat casting a shadow over Philly's promise and progress. It's one well recognized by the business, government, and nonprofit communities, which have a long history of cross-sector cooperation for the public good. Nonetheless, the impressive commercial development at the heart of our urban renaissance is not being matched by comparable progress in our high-poverty neighborhoods.

So the big question for the future would seem to be: Can creative commercial development be a catalyst for sustainable social progress?

We'd like to answer that question with an emphatic "yes." Ambitious commercial development directly tied to a specific community agenda represents the best hope for an inclusive future for Philadelphia.

Drexel University and Brandywine Realty Trust share that belief, and we are backing our conviction with a $3.5 billion investment in a project called Schuylkill Yards, on the west bank of the Schuylkill adjacent to Amtrak's 30th Street Station and Brandywine's Cira Center office towers, and at the gateway to Drexel's main campus.

The master plan for Schuylkill Yards made public Wednesday reveals some game-changing influences for Philadelphia's growth. This 14-acre development will be the largest in the city's history. It will include spaces designed for innovative start-up companies, research laboratories, and corporate offices, along with residential building, retail, and hotel space, and ample open green horizons. At the end of the 15- to 20-year construction phase, this will be an appealing neighborhood that combines commercial buildings with some of the most welcoming public spaces in urban America, a civic commons unlike any other.

Less obvious, but just as important, Schuylkill Yards has been designed from day one to provide maximum opportunities for residents of adjoining neighborhoods like Mantua, West Powelton, and Belmont. Because it's being developed in a federal Promise Zone, we'll be able to engage federal agencies in a discussion about how to supplement the high level of cooperation we're already getting from city government.

Inclusion is not a side benefit here. It's at the heart of what we hope to accomplish. Economic opportunity for neighborhood residents is a major part of the vision. And we're not depending on a trickle-down approach. A commitment to job and business access is built into this project. Drexel and Brandywine will be actively partnering with building contractors, future tenants, and community leaders to maximize the hiring of residents and purchasing from local businesses.

Long-term plans also call for Drexel to explore new avenues for its long-standing partnership with the Philadelphia School District. This means deepening our investment to help ensure that young people in West Philadelphia get the education they need to enroll in schools like Drexel or the University of Pennsylvania and someday work in one of the knowledge-based firms that take root in Schuylkill Yards.

Its strategic location encourages easy collaborations with University City's rich mix of higher education, medical, and scientific institutions. This level of collaboration is in keeping with the concept of urban innovation districts, and Schuylkill Yards has been inspired in part by the work of Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution, a prominent authority on innovation districts.

In terms of the city's long-term development, this is a giant step ahead in Philadelphia's growth westward, as Center City and University City come together as the heart of one vibrant district, tied together by the ribbon of the Schuylkill River.

This is a future the whole city can take pride in, and one that should offer opportunity to all Philadelphians.

John Fry is president of Drexel University.

Jerry Sweeney is president and CEO of Brandywine Realty Development Corp.