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University City District Celebrates 20th Anniversary

November 9, 2017

It is hard to believe that 20 years have passed since the founding of the University City District. But then again, it is hard to imagine University City without the UCD.

The UCD was modeled in spirit after the Center City District, which was the catalyst to the rebirth of Center City.

The idea for the UCD was hatched over a dinner with Paul Levy, who is still making history as the head of the Center City District, and Tom Seamon, the Vice President for Public Safety at Penn, who I recruited to the university from his role as first deputy police commissioner.

After that conversation with Paul and Tom, I asked my trusted Penn colleague, Tom Lussenhop, to undertake a feasibility study to create what would eventually become the blueprint for the University City District.

And then I hit the road, literally going door-to-door to over 25 institutions and individuals, asking them to become founding members of UCD and to pledge five years of financial support.

In the end, almost everyone said yes, and in doing so took a real chance. Approximately $22 million was pledged to support the first five years of UCD’s operations. Amazingly, the UCD went from a dinner conversation to reality in about nine months.

Our founding Executive Director Paul Steinke, was the driving force in getting the UCD off the ground. And making it a highly effective business improvement district right from the start.

Paul was blessed with a small but excellent staff, including Eric Goldstein, who later became Paul’s successor. But beyond Paul and Eric’s inspired leadership, the secret to UCD’s success involved several factors:

First, membership was voluntary.

No one was compelled to join or provide financial support. You only joined if you believed.

Second, the community was well represented, with the leaders of all the major neighborhood organizations invited to take a seat on the board.

And third, every board member, regardless of their financial contribution, had one vote.

The founding principles were simple: Clean, safe and well-lit streets. And no graffiti. That has served the University City District well over the years – even as it has grown in size and scope.

While Paul and Eric did an amazing job of building the UCD, and establishing its credibility with the community, Matt Bergheiser – one of the most admired and effective leaders in Philadelphia - and his team have taken the UCD to an entirely different level.

Today’s UCD now offers so much more, including job training, through its nationally known West Philadelphia Skills Initiative; rehabilitating abandoned buildings; and becoming an expert maker of memorable urban places, such as The Porch, and so much more.

It’s safe to say the UCD has more than lived up to its motto of “Changing places, changing lives.”

Throughout these 20 years, the partnerships and friendships that were forged early on have stood the test of time, which in the long run may be the most profound contribution of the UCD – people and institutions got to know and value each other, and collaboration started to occur.

That is a credit to many past and present leaders at Penn, Drexel, University of the Sciences, CHOP, Penn Medicine, Amtrak, University City Science Center and Campus Apartments, as well as community groups in Powelton Village, Spruce Hill, Garden Court, Walnut Hill and Cedar Park.

The UCD board, now led so expertly by my friend and colleague, Craig Carnaroli, has provided countless hours of their time and wise counsel.

Thank you to those who have served the UCD as board members and staff over the years. And special thanks to those who were there from the beginning: Maureen Rush, Penn’s vice president for public safety; Barry Grossbach of Spruce Hill; David Adelman, CEO of Campus Apartments; Joe Trainor, CFO at the Wistar Institute; and Lindsay Johnston, owner of Common Ground Realtors.

A big thanks also goes to City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell and former Mayor Ed Rendell for their encouragement and support.

While it is wonderful to look back on the UCD’s accomplishments, what’s more important now is to look to its future.

So, let’s take a moment to imagine what University City will look like in 2037 – guided by one of the finest business improvement districts in the United States.

First, 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.

The Brookings Institution report released in May envisioned an innovation district stretching from University City to the Comcast towers.

While other cities are scrambling to compete in the challenging race to be a world-class metro, we already enjoy this natural innovation district that positions us so well for the future. The challenge now is to build on our strengths by creating more startups, attracting more investment, and growing more job 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.

Creating the infrastructure to provide cradle to career opportunities is where inclusion meets innovation.

The Penn Alexander School is a wonderful example of a partnership between Penn and the Philadelphia School District that benefits everyone.

Drexel has also teamed up with the School District. A $30 million grant from the Education Department and another $76 million in matching funds are being used for education, health, safety and family support services at seven area schools in the Promise Neighborhood.

And in partnership with the District, we now are teaching 180 students who are in the 5th and 6th grades of the Science Leadership Academy Middle School, or SLAMS, now located at the Dornsife Center, and one day in a new building at 36th and Filbert that will have 800 students from SLAMS and the Powel School.

This effort goes hand in hand in helping to prepare University City residents for jobs in the new economy.

Second, as we look to 2037, University City will see the completion of Schuylkill Yards, while watching the 30th Street District Plan take shape.

Schuylkill Yards is a $3.5 billion innovation district on 14 acres surrounding the gateway to Drexel’s campus and 30th Street Station.

The development by Brandywine Realty Trust will include up to 7 million square feet of entrepreneurial space, research facilities, corporate offices, residential and retail development, cultural venues and wonderful public space. It will be anchored by the 1.3 acre Drexel Square, which broke ground yesterday.

As Schuylkill Yards takes shape, the 30th Street District Plan will start to be implemented with an elevated platform over the Amtrak and Septa railyards, which will create 16 million square feet of new space. And the jewel in the crown will be a fully renovated 30th Street Station that will be the envy of the transit world.

If we leave 30th Street Station and go west, you will witness the expansion of UCity Square, led by the University City Science Center and Wexford Science and Technology. These expansion plans call for 10 new buildings, for an additional 4 million square feet, as well as over 700 apartments, all on 14 acres with a development investment of over $1 billion.

As we gather today, 3675 Market Street, a 14-story, 345,000-square-foot building, is progressing towards completion next fall, with Cambridge Innovation Center as the anchor tenant.

Meanwhile, you will see the continued growth of Penn Medicine and CHOP into the most powerful medical complex in the country, while across the District you will see unprecedented commercialization and technology transfer occurring at Pennovation, ic@3401 Market, and on the campuses of the Wistar Institute, the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel.

And finally, in 2037 we will be able to walk down a reimagined Woodlawn Avenue commercial corridor – anchored by the University of the Sciences – as well as the Lancaster Avenue retail corridor, destined to become one of Philadelphia’s most dynamic and eclectic neighborhood retail districts.

And if it all goes the way I envision, the keynote speaker at a future University City District event will be Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. As you know, Philadelphia is competing to become the home for Amazon’s second headquarters.

The Chamber of Commerce and PIDC worked with Mayor Kenney’s administration to submit a bid last month. It is a strong proposal. And we obviously have a lot to offer.

Landing Amazon would be a game-changing event for Philadelphia and perhaps for University City. Amazon expects to create 50,000 high-paying new jobs and spend $5 billion to build 8 million square feet of office space.

The very fact that Philadelphia is in the running to land Amazon is a tribute to the University City District. The UCD helped create the necessary conditions to attract a dynamic company like Amazon – and many other businesses both big and small – to Philadelphia and University City.

That would have been hard to imagine 20 years ago. But it isn’t now - because of everyone here tonight. Your dedication, commitment and generous support helped build a great organization from scratch an organization that has made a profound impact on the lives of so many people, each and every day.

In doing so, you have made University City the best version of itself. But the true best is yet to come. I can’t wait to see what we will be able to accomplish by 2037. By working together, to make it better.