1. The Manifest Destiny of Eds & Meds
“What is Philadelphia’s distinct advantage?” asks University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann. It’s a rhetorical question, because the answer is obvious: Philly’s advantage is Penn.
Well, not just Penn. There’s also Drexel, CHOP, Temple, St. Joe’s, Jefferson … the list goes on. Philadelphia’s universities and hospitals are the city’s greatest economic asset, and one of its few real competitive advantages. In 2010, Penn and its health system generated 57,200 jobs, and that’s just within the city limits. The university estimates that its total economic impact on Philadelphia was $9.5 billion in 2010 alone. And that figure is 45 percent higher than just five years earlier.
The benevolent behemoth’s dominion over the city’s geography is growing just as quickly. By now, Penn’s transformative effect on West Philadelphia is old news. But the university is still in the early stages of the eastward expansion that began with verdant 24-acre Penn Park, which opened in 2011 and literally revealed an entirely new, and spectacular, view of Center City’s skyline.
A bit south of Penn’s campus core, the university’s medical system and CHOP are putting the finishing touches on a mini-skyline all their own. Now just about out of room, both institutions are crossing the river, snapping up underdeveloped parcels on the western fringe of Center City. Over the next 15 to 20 years, CHOP will convert a few blocks known as the Devil’s Pocket into a full-fledged research campus. Penn likewise plans a technology center on the site of the old DuPont lab on Grays Ferry Avenue.
Across the river and a bit further north, there’s Drexel, which under new university president John Fry has released a master plan with clutches of towers so tall and dense they look like something out of Sim City. The odds against it all getting built are astronomical, but Drexel is clearly expanding in big ways, acquiring large parcels on the bleak blocks of Market Street west of 30th Street Station.
All of it is designed to knit West Philadelphia into the fabric of downtown, putting back together two halves of a city cleaved not by the river (does the Seine hack up Paris?), but rather by a four-lane highway and a massive rail corridor.
Even more dramatic is Temple’s rebuilding of central North Philadelphia, including a $216 million, 27-story student housing project. That massive building is university-managed, as are plenty of others, but much of the rebuilding around Temple has been driven by private developers who have rushed to create housing for students who actually want to live in the neighborhoods where they study. As long as that’s the case, universities will continue their terraforming of Philadelphia. “The city already is a draw for students,” says Gutmann. “But we can make it a better draw.”