The real thing opens September 17.
By Amy Gutmann | Three hundred years ago, William Penn’s modest wish was “that [Philadelphia] may be a greene country towne...” This fall Penn is helping to make that wish a reality with the September 17 opening of Penn Park, one of the most transformative projects in our University’s history. What was once a desolate strip of asphalt, concrete, and parking lots has been converted into an environmentally sustainable park for our entire campus and community to enjoy.
Stretching along the West Bank of the Schuylkill, from Walnut Street to South Street and east of the Highline, the 24 acres of Penn Park are extending the familiar landscape of our campus. Formal and informal athletic areas are framed and subdivided by beautiful canopy trees and recreation areas. Exceptional footpaths, picnic spots, playing fields, tennis courts, sunny lawns, and shady groves are designed to foster community among Penn faculty and students. Three footbridges, including one at 30th and Walnut, provide access to the site. With the city skyline as a grand backdrop, pedestrians will have access to walkways and inviting green space along the Schuylkill River.
Penn Park is a remarkable urban oasis, a jewel in the mosaic of education, culture, arts, entertainment, and recreation that flourish in our West Philadelphia home. Its importance goes even beyond its enormous recreational value. In so many ways, the completion of this project speaks to our greatest goals as a university and our greatest ambitions as a community.
Penn Park will establish a vibrant new gateway between West Philadelphia and Center City and help to ensure a vibrant new synergy with our neighborhood and our city.
Over a decade ago, Penn made the strategic decision to “turn east,” to not only grow, but to render our urban campus more beautiful, more useful, and more integrated with Center City. At that time, the eastern edge of our campus was an industrial zone, home to warehouses and supply centers. In 2000, we renovated The Left Bank at 32nd and Walnut. A former GE manufacturing facility, it had become a vacant post-industrial eyesore. The Left Bank is now an envied location to live and work with apartments, retail stores, and important Penn offices and facilities.
Over the past 10 years, we have continued to enhance and enlarge the eastern part of our campus with numerous additions and renovations, such as the WXPN/World Café Live. In the process, we added thousands of jobs and millions of dollars to the local economy. Penn Park is the consummate expression of our eastward efforts to connect West Philadelphia and Center City, to weave together Philadelphia’s two most vibrant and exciting neighborhoods, and to create a new downtown that will stretch from Front Street to 40th Street.
Penn Park will also continue our efforts to become the most environmentally sustainable urban campus in the country. We have planted 530 trees and native grasses throughout the park. A special stormwater-drainage system will reduce runoff into the river. The park also adds 20 percent more green space to Penn, which is already nationally recognized as one of the nation’s most eco-friendly campuses.
Among other eco-friendly features of the park are special underground cisterns that will gather rainwater, which will then be treated and used for landscape irrigation and other purposes. Reducing our demand on conventional water supplies is not only good for the environment, it also conserves the University’s financial resources.
We soon will begin work on a new campus green and gateway to Penn Park. Shoemaker Green, located in front of the Palestra, where the tennis courts were before they were moved to Penn Park, will be a lovely new public commons. It is one of more than 150 pilot projects around the globe selected to test a new rating system for sustainable design, construction, and maintenance.
A hallmark of sustainability, Penn Park also will be a place of personal bests: an unstoppable backhand, a better batting average, a game-winning goal. Penn student-athletes and enthusiasts alike will experience the thrill of victory on the finest courts and fields in West Philadelphia.
Penn Park also will be a place of quiet enjoyment. People will gravitate there and, in a green oasis, the harried pace of city living will slow. A perfect setting, as John Muir so aptly put it, to wash the spirit clean.
Additionally, Penn Park will be a connection not only between Center City and West Philadelphia, but also between the present and the past as we help to create that “greene country towne,” a place defined as much by its green spaces as its city spaces.
Finally, Penn Park will help mark a new “center of gravity” for the city we call home.
Three hundred years ago, in the period following Penn’s founding of the Pennsylvania colony, the center of gravity for Philadelphia was the Delaware River, where the principle of religious freedom first took root in America.
Two hundred years ago, Philadelphia’s center of gravity was Independence Hall, where America’s Founding Fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, charted the course of a new republic, and framed the democratic ideals that still guide our nation.
One hundred years ago, in a continuing westward march, the center of gravity was Broad and Market, where the evidence of America’s nascent service economy found expression in the first International-style skyscraper built in the United States, the PSFS building, and one of the nation’s very first department stores, John Wanamaker’s.
Today, at the dawn of the 21st century, Philadelphia’s center of gravity lies at 30th and Market, where Penn’s “eds and meds,” the powerhouses of our modern economy, mix and meet with a revitalized business district, government offices, and a transportation hub. Taken together, they serve as a center for creativity and innovation and a catalyst for our city’s and our region’s economic growth.
A little more than a year ago, a summer storm felled a great American elm that had stood in front of College Hall since 1896. Looking out my office window, I imagined the things that happened in the 114-year life of that tree. Generations of Penn students studied in its shadow while our eminent faculty launched pathbreaking innovations, and the City of Brotherly Love transformed into an international metropolis. I cannot predict what the trees of Penn Park will witness 100 years from now. I can tell you, however, that this incredible verdant space will enliven and energize our campus and community in innumerable and incalculable ways, beginning now. Walk, bike, or run over to Penn Park. And behold!