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Young Talent, Bold Moves: Behind the Scenes at University City District

Ucd Porch

Dirt Factory

There’s something happening in University City, where the area is developing like a lab student possessed by experiments in million-dollar development projects, innovative repurposing of public spaces and strengthening formerly sluggish commercial corridors.
Blocks where 15 years ago, dealers peddled drugs like it was a farmers’ market, now host a bourgeoning commercial strip with a record store, cafés, restaurants, a craft brewery and a bike shop. The homes surrounding the blocks, many of them multi-colored charming Queen Anne Victorians, feature well-maintained facades and landscaping. 
In the past three years, more than 5.1 million square feet of completed and soon-to-be finished construction projects have occurred, 27 new acres of green space were developed, and $3B dollars in total real estate value was created. Median home prices more than tripled the past decade, recession be damned.
The numbers come from the University City District’s (UCD) State of UCD 2012/13, published in early October. Founded 15 years ago with a mission dedicated to creating clean and safe streets, UCD has become a major player in the shaping of public space west of 30th Street Station, spearheaded by institutions like the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, University City Science Center, Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania and large-scale developers like Brandywine Realty Trust.
Small Places, Big Traces
The Porch is UCD’s reimagining of an area once used for parking outside the station at 30th and Market Streets, into an almost block-long park. Opened last November, it’s been improved in stages as additional grants arrived, and features weekly events, like a farmers’ market and pop-up retail stands like Nomad Pizza. It housed a beer garden, and hosted WXPN’s Free at Noon with The Sheepdogs.
Behind ideas like these are individuals, leaders, many in their 30s, poised to impact University City in ways as visible as UCD’s yellow and blue dressed bicycle riding safety ambassadors, 42 in all, who patrol its neighborhoods, from Mantua to Cedar Park, from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. (If you need an escort, they’ll travel with you.)
“It wasn’t necessarily the most expensive,” says Nate Hommel, 33, UCD’s capital projects manager, about The Porch. “But it was the one with the most risk.”
Hommel, a landscape architect graduate of SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, is inspired by the work of Danish urban designer Jan Gehl. Hommel lived in Copenhagen as a student, and based a thesis paper on Nyhavn, a 17th century canal waterfront then notorious for sailors bouts among booze and hired women, transformed into a modern hub of cafes and more. Before UCD, he contributed in major ways to the design of Franklin's Paine Park, the now under construction multi-use skate park in the shadow of the Art Museum.
Designed with the idea of creating rooms separated by planters, themselves fabricated from salvaged cow feeding troughs, for some, The Porch represents more than the colorful seats and tables in between plants. Created with a $275K budget and dedicated in November 2011, it has grown to become the group’s most visibly successful project, as well as their leaping off point for future endeavors.  
The project is a microcosm of how civic institutions operate. They can be like a spider, a nice spider, like Charlotte. The critters entangled in their amorous web are local neighborhood groups and city agencies. The web is the finished product of their projects. UCD stretches its legs, perhaps more than eight, through the entire neighborhood.  
The Porch is a result of collaboration between offices and groups like the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities, Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, City Planning Commission, Streets Department, and Brandywine.
UCD’s Prema Gupta managed and led efforts on its part, encouraged by its executive director Matt Bergheiser, coordinating communications between organizations. She envisioned the space as one better built in phases. If UCD waited for the money it would take to built in one swoop, like the Race Street Pier, it may have never happened. In its early stages, some thought the space would be similar to the strip of concrete across the street on the south side of Market.
In late September, on the heels of a William Penn Foundation grant, UCD added 15 new high-end planters that extended The Porch about 100 feet in each direction. The success of the site led to the realization of the parklets, which transform parking spaces into modular parks with tables and chairs at viable intersections.
Since the August installation of their third such space, a double parklet located on 44th Street just shy of Spruce, in front of Honest Tom’s Taco Shop, the shop has experienced a 40 percent spike in business. Inspired by the success of parklets in San Francisco and New York City, the plans for these spaces develop with year-to-year scenarios.
“To a lot of people in the Streets Department, that’s insane,” says Hommel about the planning.
That’s what makes UCD important. It helps manage the seeming insanity of bureaucracy. The parklets’ required licenses, and cooperation from neighbors, civic groups and city officials. UCD stands as the connecting impetus between them.
The goal is to make places a destination. To do it, UCD envisions how a space can be optimized, then turns to its marketing team to spread the word.
“To me it’s pretty basic,” says Seth Budick, manager of policy and research about placemaking. “It’s quality of life. It’s improving the experience.”
Budick, 36, earned a Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology in analyzing patterns in insect behavior. When he left the field about five years ago he returned to Philly (a Swarthmore undergrad) instead of his hometown, Manhattan, because he wanted to facilitate change. 
Now he analyzes data like UCD’s pedestrian counts, collected at 15 various University City locations. He applies the data to envision how a busy space can be made busier, or how a less frequented locale can be made more appealing.
The busiest corner in University City is 30th and Market, with more than 1,000 people on average passing by each day at lunch time. Budick imagines this block as a possible spot for potential conversions and projects with ground-floor retail. On Baltimore Avenue, 10 new restaurants have opened in the past five years. In that time, weekday foot traffic, counted on the 4500, 4700 and 4900 blocks between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. has doubled.
UCD’s Web
This year UCD also launched the Dirt Factory at 4308 Market, its community compost center where it offers educational programming and composted organic soil.  It was perhaps the organization's most telling maneuver -- a bold partnership with bicycle-powered compost disposal service Pedal Coop that gives the company its largest (by far) composting site.
From overseeing the maintenance of Clark Park, to connecting neighbors to neighborhood groups like UC Green, The Food Trust, and the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, to its landlord network, it seems like UCD is connected to almost anything happening in the 2.4 square miles that comprise University City.
It’s a place where the future is moving, the number of residents aged 20-34 has increased by almost 21 percent since 2000. It’s a place where young minds are shaping the face of Philadelphia.  

LOU MANCINELLI  is a freelance journalist in Philadelphia writing profiles like he was responsible for telling the life story of all the attendants at a PTA meeting, and covering development and neighborhoods. Send feedback here.
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