Embracing growth in University City

Among the developments in the University City District: a 110,000-square-foot hotel at 41st and Walnut.
Among the developments in the University City District: a 110,000-square-foot hotel at 41st and Walnut.
Posted: September 19, 2011

ONE OF THE new barbers at the Baltimore Avenue barbershop where Sebastiano "Benny" Augello held court for 50 years has purple hair and plenty of tattoos and is a member of an all-female punk-rock band called Ovaryaction.

"I love this place. It's a dream come true," said Heather DeForrest, who, with business partner Sabrina Anderson, opened Talking Headz, on Baltimore near 47th in West Philly, four months ago. Benny's Barber Shop, a longtime neighborhood fixture, once stood there.

A few doors away, Shinara Taylor, manager of the Mariposa Food Co-op, straightened out shelves in the cramped but pleasant store. A small, orange sign on the door frame near the register says: "Our shop is small!" By winter, Mariposa is expected to move into a larger space at the old Beaulah Tabernacle building, a block west on Baltimore, near 49th Street.

For years, the co-op had only 200 members, Taylor said. But around 2004, membership exploded to 700 and managers began looking for a larger space. Taylor said grants and loans obtained with the aid of the University City District helped them to buy the larger building now under construction.

According to a report to be released today by the University City District, the 2.4-square-mile area in West Philadelphia is experiencing job and population growth and an economic revival. (The economic growth comes at a time when the 16th Police District, which overlaps a small northern portion of the University City District, has noted a sharp increase in homicides since last year.)

The report, titled "The State of University City 2011," describes the neighborhood, anchored by the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and the University City Science Center, as a boom town with nearly 70,000 jobs and $2 billion in real-estate projects completed or under way.

Among the findings is that 17 businesses have opened on Baltimore Avenue between 45th and 50th streets since the last quarter of 2009.

University City District boundaries extend from the Schuylkill to 50th Street and from Spring Garden to Woodland Avenue.

Formed in 1997, the University City District is a nonprofit organization financed by voluntary contributions from board members including Penn, Drexel and other institutions and private companies.

Matt Bergheiser, executive director of the University City District, said the area has experienced a 4.8 percent steady growth since 1990, even as the city's overall population declined by 3.8 percent over the past 20 years.

The district's population grew from 46,364 in 1990 to 47,357 in 2000 and to 48,589 in 2010. Over the same period, Philadelphia's population went from 1.58 million in 1990 to 1.52 million in 2000, before growing slightly in 2010.

"In the past year, our business community preserved nearly 5,000 jobs for Philadelphia, by re-purposing an historic building with a $252 million makeover," Bergheiser wrote in the report.

That historic building was the former 30th Street Post Office, where the IRS relocated 4,325 jobs.

Bergheiser said the district is excited about a new "pedestrian plaza" coming soon to sidewalk outside 30th Street Station. The plaza will include new trees and flowers, outdoor seating and tables, and farmers markets, music, yoga and holiday celebrations.

The plaza, which will extend along Market Street between 29th and 30th, is expected to be completed next month.

"We want it to become this wonderful public space and a suitable gateway to Philadelphia," Bergheiser said.

- Staff writer Phillip Lucas

contributed to this report.

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