Spreading the Wealth to Every Corner of University City

In the evolving narrative of Philadelphia’s renaissance, Center City often takes center stage. But hard-charging University City has recently been giving its downtown neighbor a run for its money. The numbers for this 2.4 square-mile area to the west of the Schuylkill are impressive: more than 6.6 million square feet of commercial or residential development underway or planned; $1 billion in annual federal research and development expenditures; a 21% increase in the coveted 20-to-34 year old population and a tripling of median home values over the past decade. Such jaw-dropping figures have contributed to a dramatically altered image and reality for University City over a relatively short period of time.


Robust growth and community improvement, however, have yet to reach into every corner of University City. This is plainly evident riding westbound on the Market-Frankford subway as it converts to elevated tracks in West Philadelphia. Arriving at the 46th Street station platform at the El’s first above-ground stop, it’s hard not to wonder how there can be so much vacant and underutilized property surrounding a newly refurbished transit hub just a handful of minutes from University City and downtown job centers. This dilemma was the focus of one of six regional explorations conducted by participants in last month’s Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange. As our group of 30 came down from the El to street level, we learned how a legacy of poor urban design and local populations disconnected from economic opportunity have kept this area from growing at the same pace of the rest of University City … and that a diverse set of local stakeholders are coming together to change that.


Befitting  a community at the intersection of three neighborhoods – Walnut Hill, Spruce Hill, and Mill Creek – the area surrounding 46th Street Station suffers from a bit of an identity problem reflected by the eclectic mash-up of land uses within a two-block radius. The area north of Market Street is defined by a “superblock” pattern that isolates it from the surrounding community and has slowed conversion to higher-density transit-oriented development. Directly underneath the El are several vacant lots and blighted buildings that can attribute their current state, in part, to SEPTA’s 10-year track reconstruction project between 44th and 69th streets that finally came to an end in 2009. One block south of the El station along Chestnut Street, a set of auto-oriented uses and broad curb cuts breaks up the neighborhood fabric and separates this area from the more cohesive residential development that stretches into the adjacent Spruce Hill neighborhood.


Motivated to find a better way to spur development around the 46th Street station, the Community Design Collaborative, a volunteer group of design professionals that provides pro bono services to nonprofits, partnered last November with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) to convene a group of 60 planners, architects, and community stakeholders for a full-day design charrette focused on re-envisioning the area. The resulting recommendations focused on high-density, mixed-use development around the station, greening strategies and streetscape improvements, and a new street pattern to break up the “superblocks” north of Market. In a great example of how thoughtful grassroots planning can guide long-run shared community visions, recommendations and renderings produced by the Collaborative have been incorporated directly into the City’s official University/Southwest District Plan finalized by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission in June.


An unexpected upside of the neighborhood’s superblock legacy is that it has paved the way for an emerging health and services district that is starting to spur job growth and neighborhood revitalization in the surrounding area. Within the past year, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s new Karabots Pediatric Care Center and the City’s relocated Juvenile Justice Services Center opened on large development tracts along North 48th Street. And the City continues to discuss moving the Philadelphia Police Department’s headquarters, along with the city morgue, to the Provident Mutual Life Insurance Building immediately adjacent to the El station.


While the two criminal justice uses (the Juvenile Justice Services Center is the city’s juvenile detention facility) have elicited some public safety concerns and NIMBY reactions from the surrounding community, the Karabots Center is about as close to a pure community-serving good as you can get. The $30 million, 52,000 square foot facility brings top-notch pediatric care and community programs to the heart of West Philadelphia with a capacity to serve more than 64,000 outpatient visits annually. It’s the latest outpost in a rapidly developing network of more than 50 CHOP-operated or affiliated clinics and facilities throughout the region, and a similar comprehensive pediatric care center along with new community health and recreation facilities is being planned for South Philadelphia.  


With these new institutional developments helping to fill in long-vacant parcels and establish a market for additional improvements, a parallel move is afoot in the community to train a new generation of entrepreneurs from the neighborhood to take advantage of future growth. The primary engine for these local entrepreneurship support efforts has been The Enterprise Center, a small business support organization focused on high-potential minority entrepreneurs. Located under the El in the old American Bandstand building, The Enterprise Center has developed a track record over the past two decades of successful technical assistance and micro-lending support programs serving hundreds of businesses and aspiring entrepreneurs.

Several blocks south of The Enterprise Center’s headquarters in West Philadelphia lies its newest entrepreneurial outpost. Last fall, The Enterprise Center opened the Dorrance H. Hamilton Center for Culinary Enterprises, a culinary incubator with state-of-the-art kitchen facilities for rent at cheap rates. The 13,000 square foot building provides shared-use commercial kitchens and food storage space and already has 70 client members. These culinary entrepreneurs are using the space and Enterprise Center technical assistance to start and grow catering and restaurant businesses.


While much of the current public conversation about entrepreneurship focuses on the world of high-tech, high-growth startups, it’s organizations like The Enterprise Center on the edge of University City that are investing in small business entrepreneurs from the surrounding community. For these aspiring small business owners, success is not spelled out by future IPOs but by more modest growth leading to wealth creation and increased prosperity with benefits shared throughout the community and region.


Taken together, this emerging crop of local entrepreneurs, investments in major public facilities and health care centers, and the renovation of the 46th Street Market-Frankford El stop are putting Walnut Hill on a solid path to catch up with its prosperous neighbors.