Feature: Is West Philly the Next Center City?

It’s the age of brains, Philly, which means the real action in town is happening west of the Schuylkill, where new Drexel president John Fry and a host of other bold thinkers are building what could be the city of the future. (Amazing what a guy can do when he only sleeps four hours a night)

Perhaps the key component in the neighborhood’s rebirth came when Penn partnered with the school district to build and develop a new elementary school, lavishing resources like a $1,000-per-child yearly supplement to keep class sizes down, and constant observation and extra teacher training provided by experts from the Graduate School of Education. The resulting Penn Alexander School has become one of the best in the city and the state. Though Penn purposely kept Penn Alexander a public school, it exerted a strong pull on young families, who began moving into its catchment area — many helped by generous loans guaranteed to Penn employees. The neighborhood kept improving. “When people invest in an area,” Fry says, “they tend to keep investing.”

[sidebar]Amid all this hubbub, Fry sat down one day with Penn’s new director of public safety, former deputy police commissioner Tom Seamon. “Tom and I were working on budgets,” Fry remembers, “and he told me, ‘John, you could give me enough money to put a cop on every corner. But that’s not going to work. The only way you can achieve the level of safety you want is to put things on the street that attract a lot of people throughout the day and into the evening. Retail, residences, activity — whatever you can.’”

So Fry turned his attention to the main commercial corridors through the campus — Walnut and 40th streets in particular — and started putting the university’s money into commercial mixed-use development, eventually spending upwards of $250 million on projects for Penn’s two main commercial corridors.

Meanwhile, Penn made a huge shift in its outlook for future campus growth and turned its gaze eastward, obtaining the old Civic Center site and creating what looks like a new town on Civic Center Boulevard, with two translational research centers and the futuristic Roberts Proton Therapy center. It bought up the post office buildings and lands along the Schuylkill to direct further university building toward Center City. Penn later decided to put a park with public access on 24 acres skirting the Schuylkill Expressway.

After a while, private developers began to see some promise in the new Penn approach. Carl Dranoff spent $75 million to rehabilitate a former GE warehouse near 32nd and Walnut into a loft-apartment complex cleverly called the Left Bank. Just down the street, Dranoff also rehabbed an old building to house radio station WXPN and the multilevel World Cafe Live nightclub. Recently, Jon Myerow, the owner of the Center City wine bar Tria, opened a third location, Biba, in the Walnut Street retail space of the Left Bank. “What was once a no-man’s-land is becoming a vibrant connection between Center City and University City,” Myerow told me.

“World Cafe Live and Penn Park are two great examples of progress.”

Successful universities like Penn are truly growth machines. Since the so-called West Philadelphia Initiatives began in the mid-’90s, more than a dozen buildings have cropped up on the east side of the campus, and more are in the pipeline.