University City District: Bringing Jobs and Changing the Landscape in West Philadelphia

University City District or UCD, as they call it, works to change places and change lives in West Philadelphia. UCD was founded to focus on public maintenance and public safety services. 


“Over the years we’ve expanded into public space development and activation, economic development, workforce development, event planning, developing an in-house landscaping social venture, and transportation management,” said Chris Richman, Senior Manager, Marketing and Communications at UCD. “After designing, installing, and maintaining two signature public spaces in University City—The Porch at 30th Street Station and Trolley Portal Gardens—we’ve begun lending our services and expertise to other organizations.” 


In 2019, UCD completed a new green roof, garden, and courtyard for the Philadelphia Ronald McDonald House, and they’re putting the final touches on The Lawn, a new public space at uCity Square. “We are also in the process of adapting our nationally-recognized workforce development program the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, which offers ambitious, under-resourced residents with training for job opportunities with major employers, for expansion into North and South Philadelphia,” said Richman. 


“The maker economy in Philadelphia is as strong as any place in the country, and we continue to work with local fabricators to help us build custom structures, furniture, and planters for our public spaces,” said Nathan F. Hommel, ASLA, Director of Planning and Design for UCD. “We recently debuted the Pavilion at The Porch to create a welcoming space on the western edge of The Porch. We’ve frequently heard from Porch users that they wanted an increased amount of shade, and we think this pavilion helps mitigate that issue.” It also provides outlets to charge devices and adds lots of comfortable seating options as well. 


Nearly four years ago, UCD married their expertise in placemaking with their growing focus on economic opportunity by founding Green City Works, a social enterprise landscaping business that creates living wage opportunities for local residents. “Each project executed by our social enterprise – which has grown to 17 employees – helps us reinforce our mission of changing places and changing lives,” said Hommel. “We have been doing placemaking on our sites for eight years, and we are now starting to branch out to spaces that we do not fully control.” 


The Lawn at uCity Square is a non-permanent public space built on land that will one day be a mid-rise office/hotel building. They worked closely with Wexford Science + Technology to design, build, and maintain this exciting new public space set to open to the public on 12-9-19. “We hope this is just the beginning of our fee-for-service placemaking and see it as a potential area of growth for Green City Works and University City District,” added Hommel.   


University City has grown in nearly every measurable way over the past 25 years, but in particular has seen an explosion of good jobs. In 2019, University City, a neighborhood of just 2.4 square miles, surpassed 85,000 jobs for the first time, a 41.6 percent increase over 2002, said Richman. “70 percent of jobs in University City pay over $40,000. University City accounts for approximately 12 percent of all jobs within Philadelphia, despite representing only 1.69 percent of the city’s total footprint. We’ve long been known for having a wealth of jobs in medicine and higher education, but growth with technology firms and the commercialization of research is creating more employment opportunities on every rung of the career ladder,” he added. 


After years of planning, economy-defining developments like Schuylkill Yards and uCity Square are beginning to take shape, while centers of entrepreneurship like Pennovation, ic@3401, and CIC Philly are driving the local start-up environment, noted UCD President Matt Bergheiser. 


Meanwhile, Bergheiser said researchers at anchor institutions including Penn, CHOP, Drexel, the Wistar Institute, and University of the Sciences, along with companies including Spark Therapeutics and Amicus Therapeutics, are helping to cement their status as a regional hub of innovation, particularly in the medical fields. “Development in the neighborhood has been consistent, too—we’re now home to nearly five million square feet of office space, a 37 percent increase over 2014, and nearly one million square feet of construction was completed in 2018, with an additional 2.75 million square feet currently under construction or announced,” he told us. 


According to Richman, the major challenges that UCD is working hard to address are tied to transportation and employment issues. “For transportation, we’re working with agencies like SEPTA, PennDOT, and the City to make sure our public transit systems and roadways can accommodate the growing number of people who live and work here. We recently started a Transportation Management Association (TMA) to address these issues,” he said. 


“On the job front, as much as portions of the neighborhood are thriving, we can’t ignore that 1 in 3 residents in surrounding neighborhoods lives at or below the poverty line. That’s why we originally started our West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, and why a major focus of our work now is tied to helping to bridge this employment gap,” concluded Richman.


Bergheiser believes they’re the only BID in the country to substantively embed economic inclusion into placemaking activities. How UCD and its partners continue to invest in their neighborhood and shape economic growth, while bringing untapped talent into their workforce, will help to define the future of University City.