As University City booms, a meadow grows at uCity Square

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By Melissa Romero | Curbed Philly | July 11, 2017

The site of the now-demolished University City High School is currently fenced-in, filled with giant piles of dirt, wood chips, and gravel. A dozen or so dumpster containers and trailers sit off to one side, facing the rising 14-story tower at 3675 Market. For the most part, the large swath of land is a pretty bleak, and quite frankly, ugly, construction site.

In any other situation, this future site of uCity’s Square’s public space would stay that way for the remainder of the construction’s timeframe. But this isn’t a normal project, says Nate Hommel, University City District’s (UCD) director of planning and design. If all goes to plan, in a year’s time this area will be covered in a beautiful, tree-laden meadow with a walking path.

About a year ago, developer Wexford Technology approached UCD with an idea: “Let’s try something to get people thinking a little differently about this place,” Hommel recalls the developer saying. “Let’s bring the public in early to get them acclimated to the site and help humanize this space, because it’s so massive.”

 The site itself is set to become part of uCity Square’s campus, which will ultimately span 11 city blocks and consist of a 6.5 million-square-foot mixed-use development. Local landscape architecture firm OLIN already has a design set for the public space, which will be called uCity Square and about the same size of the Comcast Tower’s plaza. But the finish line of the project as a whole is multiple years away.
That long timeline is what concerned Wexford and UCD. How, over the next few years, could the project continue to engage the neighborhood in a better way than simply throwing up a fence around a massive, vacant lot? “The fear is that you create this complex of fancy, shiny buildings with a public space in the center—but nobody knows it’s a public space,” Hommel said.
So UCD came up with the idea to create a temporary park out of the space, complete with 50 trees in colorful planters, a meadow, and a wood-chipped walking path. After consulting with OLIN, UCD picked native plants and trees that will acclimate to the site and will hopefully be used in the future permanent public space.

Pedestrians will be able to walk through the pop-up meadow next summer, once the construction of 37th, Warren, and Cuthbert Streets is complete. That’s when, Hommel says, “The hope is that we get people to explore this and start wandering around.”

Leading with the debut of a project’s public space has become a common trend. In Philly, the Museum of the American Revolution’s plaza opened six months before the actual museum opened. And the first phase of the massive $3.5 billion Schuylkill Yards project, not far from uCity Square, will include the buildout of the 1.5-acre Drexel Square. The redevelopment of the Navy Yard also began with Field Operations’ Central Green.

All three efforts have been pegged as a sign of goodwill to the respective neighborhoods. “It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it really leads to positive results and not a soulless public space,” says Hommel.

“This whole section of the neighborhood is changing and this site is changing,” said Alissa Weiss, UCD’s director of strategic initiatives and communications “To have various opportunities to engage people in the creation of the site and the future of the site is, I think, really exciting and brings people into the process along the way.”

With the help of UCD’s own Green City Works initiative team and a partnership with the nonprofit organization Tiny WPA, the future meadow will be created by local hands. The painted tree planter boxes were built in two weeks by Tiny WPA’s Building Hero Project. Meanwhile, Green City Works, which provides landscape training to West Philadelphia residents, is responsible for the planting and maintenance of the meadow.

The partnership was an easy decision for Tina WPA’s Alex Gilliam, whose operations are located close to the uCity Square site. “We like to say that we see everything that’s missing in a place: Benches on the sidewalk, bike racks—massive tree boxes that could be individual hot tubs,” he quips, gesturing to the planters scattered throughout the site.

There’s no doubt that a public meadow will be a big upgrade from the site’s current status. But Hommel sees the future community asset as more of a celebration of what’s to come for the neighborhood than a coverup of an ugly construction site.

“It’s celebrating all this construction that’s happening,” he said, “and getting people in on it rather than being on the outside. Eventually, when the fences come down, we hope people won’t be saying, ‘Hey it’s not for us.’”

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