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)

JUST AFTER THE 14th anniversary of Vladimir Sled’s death, I spent several days touring the Penn campus and surrounding neighborhoods. I hadn’t been in the area for a while. I found that the campus, where I was once employed, and the neighborhood, where I lived for years, have been transformed. To the west of campus, neighborhoods like Spruce Hill, Walnut Hill and Garden Court are prim and prosperous-looking, and have become so kid-friendly, longtime resident Barry Grossbach told me, that the Halloween parade this year was almost overrun with families: “You could have easily given away $500 in candy.” I walked past a spiffy condo building David Adelman developed in partnership with Penn in the 4200 block of Pine Street, built around a substantial Horace Trumbauer mansion; one condo sale, Adelman bragged, recently broke the $1 million barrier. He’s so bullish on the neighborhood that he’s about to start building a hotel two blocks west of 40th Street, well beyond a longtime de facto neighborhood border so intimidating that students dubbed the McDonald’s at 40th and Walnut streets “McDeath.”
The revived 40th Street corridor is buzzing with life these days — anchored on opposite corners by the movie theater/cafe complex the Rave and a 24-hour Fresh Grocer supermarket. The street now houses a number of mom-and-pop stores and restaurants, with a few brand names thrown in: Jose Garces’s antic two-story cantina Distrito is only a few blocks away from the sleek Stephen Starr outpost Pod.

Just down Sansom Street from the $80 million Sansom Common complex — which contains the fancy Hilton Inn at Penn, a posh Barnes & Noble-run university bookstore and Pod — is the stalwart White Dog Cafe, founded in 1983 by inveterate lefty Judy Wicks. Over lunch at the cafe, which she sold in 2009, Wicks told me, “It’s been gradual, but the neighborhood really improved. It’s a lot more dynamic, with a top-quality hotel, really nice restaurants. They brought Urban Outfitters into [Sansom Common]. I don’t know how all the decisions were made there, but I think John Fry had a lot to do with it. He’s got good taste.”

, John Fry (even before he left to run Franklin & Marshall) and Penn had to draw the line somewhere. On the north, Market Street became a boundary. Much of the city’s main east-west artery was already occupied by the oldest urban scientific-research park in the nation, the 15-building University City Science Center. Established in the bad old days of bulldozer-driven urban renewal, the Science Center was slow to recognize the value of mixed-use development, and for years its stretch of Market Street remained virtually lifeless after dark. But its newest building includes the street-level restaurant MidAtlantic. 

“I’m right in line with John’s thinking about density and street life,” says Stephen Tang, the president of the center. From where he sits in the Science Center headquarters near 37th and Market streets, Tang looks to two glowing beacons — one on either coast — of what University City could become. But Tang is more interested in building companies than buildings.