Philadelphia’s New Boom

The city is changing dramatically, with new buildings, revitalized neighborhoods and inviting public spaces emerging all at once. Here’s an inside look at what’s behind this New Boom — and a preview of what our revitalized city will be.

Trend #6: A New Kind of Business

The new Comcast building is going to change everything. By Liz Spikol

Foster + Partners/Comcast Corporation

A rendering of the Comcast Innovation and Technology Center, which is already under construction. Foster + Partners/Comcast Corporation

Philadelphia’s architectural innovation is often more easily recognized in hindsight than in the moment. We can see now, for instance, that City Hall is a uniquely exquisite example of French Second Empire design, but when it was built — and for decades thereafter — there were calls to demolish it by those who found it too ornate. Similarly, it’s unlikely any of us stopped Louis Kahn for an autograph when he was trudging to his Walnut Street office in the late 1950s, or even knew in the ’60s if we passed Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown on the street. Now all three of them are a proud part of the city’s architectural DNA.

Eventually, we learned. The completion of One Liberty Place in 1987 finally “gave the city’s skyline a distinctive profile,” as Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger put it. By 2007, when Comcast erected its first glass tower — one of the 20 tallest in the U.S. — we recognized it for what it was: a triumphant blend of style and sustainability, and a broadening of the city’s architectural possibilities.

Those possibilities were realized just seven years later when plans were announced for the New Comcast Building. (Despite its official title as the Comcast Innovation and Technology Center, it’ll always be referred to as the “New Comcast Building.”) And this building — of all the things currently being constructed in this city — is truly revolutionary. Yes, it will be the newest and biggest (actually, it will be the tallest building in the country outside of New York or Chicago), but that’s not what sends our superlatives into hyper-drive. First, there’s its pedigree: It’s being designed by London-based architect Norman Foster — the man who has created a bevy of spectacular buildings that keep cities like New York and London looking like modern superpowers — marking the first time the city has gotten a skyscraper from someone who’s won a Pritzker Prize and the AIA Gold Medal and is a lord and was knighted. “The building is, as a tower, like nothing that has happened before,” Foster has said — and given that one of his most famous towers is nicknamed “Gherkin” because of its resemblance to a giant pickle, we believe him. (Foster’s firm is also designing a building for Penn.) The interior will be designed by San Francisco-based blockbuster firm Gensler, which recently completed the Shanghai Tower in China.

Then there’s the way Comcast II is changing Philadelphia’s perspective by including a glass-walled top-floor restaurant and Four Seasons hotel 900 feet above the city. That’s 400 feet higher than any view of Philly we currently have. Finally, there’s the ownership: Comcast — a company that once felt as homespun as souvenir flags at the Betsy Ross House — is now the world’s largest media corporation, with an international profile to match. It plans to use the new building not only as a center where innovation happens, but as a model of it; the “vertical campus” will combine entities that don’t typically sit cheek by jowl, including a luxury hotel, TV stations, gardens, start-up space, and a public gathering area that will connect to underground transportation — all of which, if it works, could serve as a template for future high-density building. (The mix of people in the building will be novel, too: Programmer types in hoodies will find themselves mixing it up with suited-up business-types.) As buildings go, there’s nothing in Philadelphia like it. Let’s recognize this moment in architectural innovation and singularity of use for what it is — it will give the din of city construction a frisson you didn’t know it could have.

Behind the Boom: Business

The Booster: John Grady

It’s not just the half-billion-dollar portfolio that gives Grady more clout than the Commerce Department. As president of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, he’s got a hand in almost every economic bright spot in our city — from StartUp PHL to potential development on the Schuylkill. But Grady’s crown jewel remains the Navy Yard’s transformation into a corporate campus with 11,000 jobs. It might be the best turnaround we’ve seen since the Rendell era.

The Comcast Darling: Bill Hankowsky

Hankowsky owns an impressive amount of office spaces around the world, but it’s the state-of-the-art symbolism (see: the Comcast Tower) that defines his tenure as Liberty Property Trust’s CEO. At the Navy Yard, LPT helped pull together the master architectural plan. With Comcast II (and maybe III?) under way, Hankowsky continues to push the city’s rents, tech-innovation scene and sky limits even further.

The City Hall Muscle: Rina Cutler and Alan Greenberger

Elegance and practicality are tough to marry when it comes to urban renewal. But former architect Greenberger, Nutter’s economic-development and commerce guy, has been officiating projects that do just that. From revitalizing the Market East area to the Delaware River Waterfront to Dilworth Park, he’s the man pulling all the pieces and people together. Cutler, as czar of transportation and utilities for the city, has overseen the beautification of some key projects that have had immediate community impact, like the Manayunk Bridge Trail and the Porch at 30th Street Station. She’s also working to overhaul the 40th Street Trolley portal, which should improve transportation and spur development.

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