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Philadelphia Science Center struggles to be more than another generic innovation district | Inga Saffron

Dull buildings make for dull minds.

This drone shot shows the 14 acres of cleared land in West Philadelphia where the University Science Center's uCity Square project is rising.
This drone shot shows the 14 acres of cleared land in West Philadelphia where the University Science Center's uCity Square project is rising.Read moreUniversity City Science Center

Innovation districts are supposed to be places where people think differently. So why do the architectural designs for West Philadelphia’s uCity Square lack innovation?

In case you’ve lost track of the various innovation districts under construction in Philadelphia, uCity Square is the one just north of Market Street, between 36th and 38th, in the border land between the Drexel and Penn campuses. Drexel and its development partner, Wexford Science + Technology, created the concept for the research center after acquiring the 14-acre site — once home to the University City High School — from the school district in 2014.

At the moment, the property is still a vast expanse of brown dirt, an empty zone between the University City Science Center on Market Street and the leafy residential streets of Powelton Village. But in a few short months, an entirely new neighborhood will start to take shape there. Already, you can see the concrete foundations of a new Drexel-sponsored public school rising along 37th Street, soon to be uCity Square’s main street. Next week, Drexel and Wexford will seek approval from the city’s Civic Design Review board to erect a 12-story academic tower next door so the university can move its nursing school from Center City to its main campus.

Wexford also is powering ahead with its own projects, including a 14-story research tower aimed at biotech companies and a 463-unit apartment building that will front on Lancaster Avenue. A hotel has been penciled in for the corner of 37th and Filbert. In an interview, Drexel President John Fry also confirmed what has long been an open secret, that the university is setting aside an asphalt lot at 36th and Warren for a new art museum, the Philadelphia Contemporary.

Thanks to that museum and the public school, the plan for uCity Square is more diverse and ambitious than the ones for Philadelphia’s other current innovation districts — Schuylkill Yards, the Navy Yard, and Pennovation. None of those massive developments offer a cultural component along the lines of the Philadelphia Contemporary, which is being designed by Johnston Marklee, a Los Angeles firm acclaimed for its museum work. The Drexel-sponsored school, which is also the work of a top-notch firm, Rogers Partners, will provide a new home for two high-performing public schools, Powel elementary and SLA’s middle school. Its presence will instantly make this tabula rasa development feel more integrated into the city, more like an authentic place.

If you just look at the project’s layout, you can’t help admiring the thinking behind uCity Square. Drexel and Wexford have dutifully checked off every item on the urbanist to-do list. They took what was a gargantuan superblock and restored two of the original streets, 37th and Cuthbert. They’ve threaded the rest of the site with pedestrian paths, which will be landscaped with native grasses and shrubs by Philadelphia’s Andropogon. Of course, there are plazas and pocket parks throughout the development, per the usual innovation district formulas.

Zoom in on the designs, however, and you quickly begin to see how familiar it all is. Apart from the school and the museum, all the same components can be found in every other innovation district catering to the tech crowd, both here and in other cities. The streets, the plazas, the amenities (Shipping-container beer garden? Check. Cafes? Check. Fitness Center? Check.) are straight from the playbook. The project has been master-planned to death, without any opportunity for the serendipity and eccentricity that are essence of urban life to creep in.

That lack of originality comes through in the architectural designs, which are being overseen by Wexford. While none of the buildings on the main part of uCity Square are finished yet, two gateway projects on Market Street are: a research building and pocket park at 37th and Market. They make a perfunctory welcome committee.

Take the just finished Pivot Park by Jonathan Alderson Landscape Architects. It announces itself with a group of brightly colored, umbrella-shaped structures by SOFTlab, called “Spectral Grove.” Are they canopies? Pergolas? Who knows? Their job is to signal “whimsy” to the biotech researchers who will populate most of uCity Square. But just try to find a way to meaningfully use this space. To access the cafe tables, you have to climb into a gravel planting bed and navigate a narrow, arbitrarily curved, walking path.

The research building, 3675 Market, was meant to be a step up from the other buildings at the University City Science Center, a collection of bland mid-rises that looked like they escaped from a bad suburban office park. To its credit, 3675, by ZGF Architects, tries to activate the ground floor with Quorum, a free co-working space. Yet, as architecture, it is another stubby glass box, with a couple of pop-out window bays to break up the slickness.

As an office product, 3675 has been enormously successful and is now fully leased. That may be due to the quality of the interiors, which include science labs, a conference center, and a variety of cafes and lounges, all inventively executed by architect Sidi Gomes. Unfortunately, it’s the exterior that has set the tone for Wexford’s next effort, One uCity Square, on 37th Street. Another ZGF production, it, too, is a stubby glass cube, this time with cantilevered windows telescoping out from the facade.

Then there is the generic plaza planned for the front entrance, a public space that is supposed to be heart of uCity Square. A rectangular platform with a postage-stamp lawn in the center, the design is a collage of elements cribbed from every other plaza-park built in Philadelphia over the last decade. It’s Dilworth Park, Love Park, Comcast Plaza, and Drexel Square rolled into one. These flat parks were meant to serve as flexible stages for a variety of programming, but they have instead become the hallmark of the placeless place.

Two other buildings that will bookend the new 37th Street corridor also fall into by-the-numbers category. The massive, apartment building on Lancaster Avenue, by Lessard Design, borrows some the warehouse-y details that are popular now, but doesn’t have the conviction to fully embrace them. At least, the block-long facade is broken into two parts.

Drexel’s nursing school, by Ballinger, had been one of uCity Square’s superior designs. The building, which faces a pedestrian cut-through, originally had an enormous bay that carved out a cozy seating area overlooking the path. For some reason, the original cream-colored facade has been colorized for its presentation to the design review board. Note to architects: Multicolored panels never make a weak design better.

The one potential bright spot promises to be the public school. While the design is comprised of the same architectural components as several recent Philadelphia school projects, its lower floors will feature dark brick, and its two corners — the gym and the cafeteria — will be clad in a shimmering, translucent plastic sheathing. The design is plain, but functional, and the courtyard could be a great gathering space.

Innovation districts like uCity Square sell themselves to the cadres of creative tech workers by promising environments that stimulate creativity. Unless Wexford and Drexel find a way to loosen up their rigid plan — perhaps with a go-for-broke work of architecture or an unexpected user — those workers may discover that innovation is just another name for the same old grind.