By Alissa Weiss and Nate Hommel
Editor's Note: PPS has been collaborating closely with Philadelphia's University City District for the past 7 years, helping to support their Lighter Quicker Cheaper approach, to promote placemaking in their mission, and to advise on their 30th Street Porch Project. Focusing on the ever-evolving role of placemaking in district management strategies, this article is the second in a multi-part PPS guest series with UCD’s Nate Hommel and Alissa Weiss.
As spring unfolds, University City District (UCD)—a partnership of anchor institutions, businesses and residential communities in a 2.4 square mile district in West Philadelphia—is beginning to think about the launch of Trolley Portal Gardens, a new public space and restaurant at the busiest at-grade rail station in Philadelphia. We are preparing to notify our neighbors about the new locations of our Parklets (think of a brightly landscaped roof deck located in a parking spot) and scheduling summer lunchtime performances at The Porch at 30th Street Station, our public plaza outside Philadelphia’s main train station.
So how did a special services district—once solely focused on providing public maintenance and public safety services to a neighborhood struggling to combat crime—wind up with a large and varied portfolio of public spaces? And more importantly, how and why has placemaking been so fully integrated into its mission? It all comes back to our role as stewards of University City, and our responsibility for making University City as safe and vibrant as possible for those who live, work, visit and do business in the area. Great public spaces are critical to creating such a community.
In the late 2000s, it was clear that University City was undergoing a transformation: UCD’s Clean and Safe services had made a marked difference throughout the community; perceptions of the neighborhood had begun to change since UCD’s founding in 1997; and local meds and eds like University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia were investing heavily in their campuses, with bigger region-defining developments on the horizon. Thanks to sweat equity from civic organizations, beloved local spots like Clark Park and Malcolm X Park were flourishing. Yet throughout the district, there were too many stretches of barren concrete, places where the environment prioritized cars at the expense of people, and dreary sidewalks that didn’t come close to matching the ambitious skyline our partners had begun building.
Nowhere was this more the case than outside 30th Street Station. As we wrote in our last blog post, before we took on The Porch at 30th Street project, the area was in serious need of a makeover. 30th Street Station may have been a beautiful and historic building, but the drab concrete and jam-packed roadways just outside its doors didn’t make a great first impression on people entering the neighborhood or visiting Philadelphia for the first time. It didn’t serve as a welcoming gateway to the region or the University City neighborhood, and it certainly didn’t telegraph that this was a burgeoning innovation district full of promise, ready to serve as the home of a new company and its employees. UCD had long believed that a new public space could serve as a grand entrance to Philadelphia; a building block that would make University City more attractive to local residents, workers, interested developers, and passersby. It took a small, nimble organization like ours to step up to the plate and make the necessary changes.
Since its founding, UCD has served as an intermediary that addresses the challenges that may not make sense for any one of our partners—a single business, hospital or civic association—to tackle alone. As an entrepreneurial organization that reflects the shared needs of the community, we are able to take on projects that don’t have a clear owner, or that larger, more bureaucratic entities may not want to address. It became clear that if we wanted to make University City as dynamic and safe as possible, we had to build on our foundational Clean and Safe services and begin investing in public space.
This growth from just "Clean and Safe” to public space is not unique to UCD, as many BIDS across the country have become indispensable investors in the public realm, creating and stewarding public squares and civic commons across the nation. Indeed, we were inspired by BIDS both local and national as we embarked on our public space work: Philadelphia’s own Center City District had begun transforming the public space outside City Hall; we consulted with NYC’s Bryant Park and 34th Street Partnership BIDs as we began to expand our portfolio; and PPS was critical in helping us land on our “Lighter, Quicker Cheaper” approach and advance our role as stewards of University City’s public realm. Local governments have also served as exemplars for us, from NYCDOT’s Pedestrian Plazas to San Francisco’s Pavement to Parks program.
While this work began in earnest at Porch at 30th Street Station, which we told the story of in our last guest post, we have since developed a vast portfolio of public space projects. From pedestrian plazas to transit seats to parklets and beyond, we always have the goal of providing a sense of dignity to the user experience within UCD’s public realm. We strive to match the community’s needs—increasing pedestrian safety, encouraging biking or the use of public transit, activating a commercial corridor—in designing the intervention; whether big or small, UCD has seen that all well-managed spaces can enhance quality of life for the whole community. We have also found that our core services reinforce this work, as the work of our Clean and Safe crews extends to the care of our new spaces, too. And because the community, our institutional partners, municipal government, and funders respect and trust the work we’ve done in those domains, we’ve been able to use that experience as a springboard into public space design and management.
Over the years, we built up the expertise required to transform a highly utilitarian, concrete space surrounding Philadelphia’s largest at-grade train station into the Trolley Portal Gardens, a forthcoming public space and restaurant. It took an intermediary like UCD, created to work across and on behalf of community stakeholders, to take this on. Built on land owned by the City and leased to the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), co-developed by UCD and a private restaurateur and funded by private, philanthropic and public dollars, it’s hard to imagine another entity diving into this complex, cross-sectoral undertaking. Most importantly, as stewards of the district, we listened to the neighborhood and could see this was an asset that the community sorely needed.
Of course, communities need far more than beautiful public spaces in order to thrive, and over the years, UCD has worked hard to connect our public space portfolio to our increasing—and increasingly innovative—investments in opportunity and equity. Stay tuned for our next installment, where we describe our landscaping social venture designed to employ talented local residents, and our groundbreaking work to ensure that our spaces are deeply inclusive and just.