Can University City become a catalyst for the Philly tech scene? - Technical.ly Philly

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Dec. 29, 2016 12:50 pm

Can University City become a catalyst for the Philly tech scene?

The western bank of the Schuylkill River houses a handful of anchor institutions from Philly's tech ecosystem. Here's what's the neighborhood has to do next.

University City.

(GIF via Cory Popp's "Philadelphia in Motion" video)

For now, a lot of uCity SquareUniversity City Science Center’s and Wexford Science + Technology‘s $1 billion development project for University City —  is a flashy, futuristic rendering.

By mid-2018, it will likely become a more tangible reality with the opening of 3675 Market St. The 14-story building will house both the Science Center itself and its Cambridge, Mass.-based counterpart: the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC), which recently leased 127,000 square feet of space at the upcoming site. The CIC will bring to town its experience in helping companies get from the startup to the scaling phase, while the Science Center will provide the talent and relationships it has cultivated.

The Science Center’s president Stephen Tang is pretty stoked about the news. Yet he seems even more keen on the idea of the building itself. He speaks, as he has before, of a development model that will bridge the gap between underprivileged communities surrounding the site and the newcomers.

“This building is the physical manifestation of that vision,” he told Technical.ly over the phone. “This will visibly connect the neighborhood to the great assets in University City.”

The announcement of this deal, which is being billed as a sign of University City drawing attention from out-of-towners, marks a good moment in time to ask: will University City play a bigger role in stoking Philly’s tech ecosystem over the coming years? And how can it get there?

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The afternoon is just beginning for Adam Glaser. The Harvard-educated architect is sitting at Benjamin’s Desk’s newest Center City location, which recently soft-opened. Aside from his duties as Chief Design Officer for the coworking troupe, Glaser has also spent some time researching how an innovation district can happen in the city (namely, in West Philly, which includes University City).

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“A huge part of developing a tech zone is flexibility and affordability,” Glaser said. “Places like South Lake Union, Seattle, the areas around Mission Bay in San Francisco and Cambridge, Mass., five years ago, have these things in common: a great anchor, a lot of open squares and enough land so people can jump in the area and grow. West Philly is different. There are a lot of anchors, there’s not a lot of land.” (University City doesn’t have the affordability part down, but we’ll return to that.)

By “anchor,” Glaser is referring to an institution with a solid presence in the area, with sprawling physical presence and the ability to expand when the time is right. Anchors in University City abound: the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania and the Science Center. The way these historic players choose to rally around innovation efforts is sure to be key for a University City powerhouse in the coming years.

From an urban design standpoint, Glaser said the central tension for University City will be: how to balance the need big players have for lots of space to grow vs. the smaller players needing a platform to get started.

“Our biggest challenge is how do we build enough space to allow a community of the scale that we need it to be?” Glaser said. Unsurprisingly, Glaser thinks coworking will be key.

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One thought about University City in this discussion could be: isn’t the neighborhood already a bastion in the tech ecosystem? There’s at least a few high-profile startups housed in the corridor, like Yasmine Mustafa’s ROAR for Good or Ofo Ezeugwu’s WhoseYourLandlord, both housed at Innovation Center @ 3401. Yet companies like these, still in their early stages, aren’t exactly an anchor just yet.

There’s also a little cluster of new/upcoming gateway offices. 2016 saw Microsoft make landfall in University City with the Microsoft Reactor Philadelphia, which kicked off in the summer out of 3711 Market Street. Fintech company FreedomPay moved its HQ into University City by way of a 24,799-square-foot office in the FMC Tower at Cira Centre South, where 150 of its employees will be working out of in 2017. Maybe Vanguard will open its forthcoming Vanguard Innovation Center within the limits of University City.

The fact that there are big corporations with offices of their own and small startups colocated in incubators is likely due to the fact that, according to Jones Lang LaSalle analyst Clint Randall, University City commercial real estate has historically been the most expensive in the city. In the last quarter of 2015, landlords asked for an average of $38.15 per square foot, according to a Jones Lang LaSalle report, surpassed only by the Navy Yard’s $39.66 per square foot.

Those who squabble over neighborhood boundaries may call us out on this one, but it would be dumb not to include the Pennovation Center in this discussion. Yes, Penn’s 58,000-square-foot R&D hub is technically a Grays Ferry location, but it’s also a satellite location of Penn, just a quick drive across the University Avenue Bridge from Penn’s campus. Flashy inauguration aside, its impact still remains to be seen. Will it represent a University City sprawl?

(Related: The stats behind University City’s booming economy.)

And since there’s strength in numbers, here are a few from University City District’s The State of University City report: there are 76,777  jobs in the district (over 70 percent of which are eds and meds related), and 43,908 students enrolled in four colleges and universities, which makeup the neighborhood’s talent pool. Here are a few more: in 2016 there were 175 patents were issued to University City businesses, R&D investment increased $8 million over the previous year. And another: the number of 20 to 34-year-olds living in University City is up 16 percent since 2000.

“University City is an economic powerhouse for the entire Philadelphia region,” reads the district’s report. “The 2.4 square mile neighborhood is home to some of the city’s largest and most innovative academic, research, and commercial partners.”

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Looks like, from a numbers standpoint, the elements of a tech cluster are there. The question remains: can the neighborhood come through for Philly’s tech scene? Its ability to connect with the broader ecosystem and beyond will be the most telling sign. It’s capacity to rake in capital, another.

But perhaps the broader question to ask University City’s community is, once the tech engine is firing on all cylinders, what does that look like with regard to the surrounding neighborhoods? Will it be be an island of innovation or a platform of support for those around it?

Bruce Katz, a researcher from the Brookings Institute who has led the charge on research around innovation districts, has lauded University City for its growth. In a piece titled “One year after: Observations on the rise of innovation districts,” he also made the case for how these districts have the power to raise the economic well-being of surrounding communities.

“Innovation districts create employment opportunities that can be filled by local residents and procurement and construction opportunities that can be fulfilled by local vendors and contractors,” Katz wrote. “The districts generate tax revenues that can be used to fund neighborhood services and neighborhood regeneration. And they offer the potential to link the ample expertise and talent in anchor educational institutions with the needs of neighborhood schools and children.”

University City is sitting on a golden opportunity. And 2017 is its window. We’ll be watching.

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Roberto Torres

Roberto Torres became Technical.ly Lead Philly Reporter in May 2016. Prior, he was a freelance contributor to Technical.ly and Al Dia News. The native Venezuelan moved to Philadelphia in 2015 after reporting on research at his alma mater, the University of Zulia. Whenever he's not fencing deadlines, he can be found standing in line at Overbrook Pizza in West Philly, running Netflix/Hulu marathons with his wife or reading news from Venezuela.

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