As President Fry Looks Back on University City’s Advances, the Future Beckons

Drexel President John Fry at the University City District 20th anniversary celebration / Photo by Lora Reehling Photography
Drexel University President John Fry at University City District's 20th anniversary celebration / Photo by Lora Reehling Photography

As he reflected on the path taken in the past two decades to turn University City into a booming neighborhood with all the markers of a 21st century success story, Drexel University President John Fry couldn’t help but look to the future. Speaking Thursday at World Café Live as part of the 20th anniversary celebration for the University City District (UCD), Fry gazed toward a future of medical breakthroughs, reimagined retail corridors, expansive community spaces and high-quality education for residents of all ages.

“I see a University City where innovation and inclusion combine to further strengthen the competitive position of our institutions while creating even greater opportunities for residents who will live in increasingly safe, diverse and vibrant neighborhoods,” Fry said.

As the founding chairman of UCD, an organization formed in 1997 to revitalize the West Philadelphia neighborhood, Fry described going door to door all that time ago to ask 25 institutions and individuals to become founding members and pledge their financial support to help turn around University City. He and the UCD quickly raised more than $20 million to get the effort off the ground. The voluntary nature of the support and the UCD’s drive to get neighborhood groups involved in the process were key factors in the success the organization has seen in the past 20 years, he said.

The UCD set out with simple principles in mind, Fry said: clean, safe and well-lit streets, and no graffiti.

“It’s safe to say the UCD has more than lived up to its goal of changing places and changing lives,” he said.

Matt Bergheiser, who has been executive director of the UCD since 2009, noted that even though the anniversary event was a celebration of the past, the neighborhood has always been about the future. And Fry’s determination has been an integral part of the process from the very beginning, he said. It took just nine months to turn the UCD from a discussion over dinner into a functioning entity ready to make an impact — a reflection, in large part, of Fry’s nature.

“His speed from vision to action is what we’ve tried to embody,” Bergheiser said.

Throughout the UCD’s history, that action has resulted in immense change to the neighborhood surrounding Drexel — change that is continuing at a rapid pace thanks to new projects like the $3.5 billion Schuylkill Yards development. As Fry noted, he was speaking just one day after Drexel Square, the first phase of the project, broke ground. Construction to revamp the 40th Street trolley portal and turn it into a park is nearly complete. The Woodland Avenue commercial corridor and the Lancaster Avenue retail corridor are both seeing improvements that Fry said have the area “destined to become one of Philadelphia’s most dynamic and eclectic neighborhood retail districts.” Alongside the universities, medical centers and growing tech companies now spread throughout University City, the neighborhood is positioned to flourish even more in its next 20 years, he said. 

“While other cities are scrambling to compete in the race to be a world-class metro, we already enjoy this innovation district that positions us so well for the future,” Fry said. “The challenge now is to build on our strengths by creating more startups, attracting more investments and growing more opportunities for everyone. At the same time, we must continue to bolster our primary and secondary schools and increase educational opportunities for all University City residents.”

Given Philadelphia’s strong pitch to Amazon to bring its second headquarters here — an effort Fry himself has given his full backing — there could be even more reason for the UCD to prosper in the near future.

“If it goes the way I envision, the keynote speaker at a future University City District event will be Jeff Bezos,” Fry said.