Philly’s University City to undergo a ground-up rethink by Ayers Saint Gross, ZGF, and OLIN

Architecture Development East News Urbanism
ZGF Architects designed a tower programmed for offices, retail, and apartments that look out onto an OLIN–designed public square. (Courtesy ZGF)

ZGF Architects designed a tower programmed for offices, retail, and apartments that look out onto an OLIN–designed public square. (Courtesy ZGF)

In West Philadelphia, a team of developers, planners, and architects are asking one of urbanists’ favorite questions: How can a mega-development be made to feel like a neighborhood, and not a bland corporate campus plopped in the middle of the city? Lead developers Wexford Science + Technology and the University City Science Center are spearheading the from-scratch transformation of a former superblock into a sort of mini city within a city.

The 14 acre site, roughly bounded by North 38th, North 36th, and Filbert streets, and Lancaster Avenue, will be divided into 4 sections to break up the current superblock. (Google Maps)

The 14 acre site, roughly bounded by North 38th, North 36th, and Filbert streets, and Lancaster Avenue, will be divided into 4 sections to break up the current superblock. (Google Maps)

(Courtesy ZGF)

3675 Market (Courtesy ZGF)

The developers’ suggested new name for University City, uCitySquare, is bland, The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Inga Saffron contends, though the master plans may not be. Ayers Saint Gross took the lead on the plan, with Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang as a contributor.

It appears that the project is riding the same trends that developers used to remake Philly’s 12th and Market area into a successful mixed-use district.

The uCitySquare master plan would break the 14-acre site into four pieces by restoring 37th and Cuthbert streets, demapped in the urban renewal that transformed the once-dense neighborhood of row houses into growth space for the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel. It suggests moving 37th Street east of its original location, to make traffic and pedestrian flow smoother along the north-south access between Penn and the residential neighborhood of Powelton Village. Stubby Cuthbert Street would be extended east-west, linking Presbyterian Hospital to the Drexel campus.

So far, the uses of two of the four parcels have been set. Drexel commissioned Rogers Partners to build an elementary and a middle school. Project start dates are contingent on budget negotiations with the city’s school district.

The first buildings are sprouting. ZGF Architects‘ 3675 Market will break ground this spring. The bulky glass cube’s main tenant is the Cambridge Innovation Center. The Baltimore-based firm is doing a second building at 37th and Warren with solar panels embedded into the facade.

Erdy McHenry will design a mid-rise apartment building with ground-floor retail on Lancaster Avenue that breaks ground this summer.

The developers are committed to making common spaces not boring. The University City Science Center says that there will be a supermarket, wide sidewalks, and underground parking to minimize street space devoted to cars. The master plan calls for Philadelphia-based OLIN to design a public park at the center of the site.

So far, these are good promises that are tempered by the science center’s present foray into urbanism: folding chairs and brick pavers along a pedestrian-only stretch of 37th Street that will connect to uCitySquare is intensely uninviting.

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