From parking lots to 'paradise'

Amy Gutmann took to the stage at World Cafe Live last month to generate some real, live excitement about her east campus vision. Joining her at the National Constitution Center-sponsored event on Sept. 26 was Philadelphia Magazine Editor Larry Platt and restaurant impresario Stephen Starr.

When you’re talking about a multi-billion-dollar project that will stretch over more than three decades, it can be tough to keep an audience engaged. The timeframe seems absurdly long, the price tag beyond the realm of what we can relate to. But as abstract and intangible as Penn’s plan for the postal lands may seem, make no mistake, said Gutmann, the vision will be realized. And it will be magnificent.

Breaking barriers
Riffing on Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” Gutmann told the assembled crowd that the east campus plan will “take 24 urban acres, 14 of which have paved parking lots on them, and bring a bit of paradise to Philadelphia.” The core of the vision, she continued, is connectivity, both on the campus, where there will be new walkways and green spaces, and between the campus and Center City, with revamped Walnut and South street bridges and an “iconic and beautiful” new pedestrian bridge between the two.

Currently, said Gutmann, World Cafe Live is “an island of liveliness in a bleak scene.” That will change, she said, when Walnut Street is filled in with “a lively 24/7 edge … with housing, retail, arts and culture.” Drawing people across the Schuylkill will happen naturally once there is an inviting vista to help them past what Larry Platt called the “psychological barrier” of the river. The actual distances involved, Gutmann pointed out, are small. “If you walk from my office in College Hall to the Bridge [movie theater] it seems like a short walk,” she said, “because you’re continually passing people. If you walk east to the river it feels longer.” Once the retail and culture corridor takes shape, she insisted, “the walk eastward is going to seem just as fast and lively.”

The Starr factor
For Stephen Starr, whose ever-expanding empire of theme restaurants includes Pod at 36th and Sansom, the Penn campus represents another destination in the city, and a sophisticated, international one at that. “In Philly there are really only three places to go,” he said. “Rittenhouse, South Street and Old City. Now there’s another place to go.” Restaurants, he said, citing Williamsburg in Brooklyn, can ignite the renaissance of a neighborhood. Though he’s not committing himself just yet, Starr hinted that if he was to duplicate any of his “concept” restaurants on the west side of the river, Jones, his downhome diner at 7th and Chestnut might make the most sense since its comfort food menu would likely appeal to a student population. Plus, it’s relatively affordable.

The east campus plan is exciting, said Starr, because it’s “like building a city from scratch.” Beyond restaurants, Starr said he was in talks with Gutmann and her team about student housing. “Why not put in rooftop decks with cabanas? Make it more appealing.”

Forewarned and forearmed
When Larry Platt commented how well the plan had been received so far, Gutmann acknowledged that was partly because she had paved the way carefully. “When I came here people warned me this wasn’t a very positive city, so I was forewarned and forearmed. I decided to consult with every major group in the city and by the end we came up with a plan that everybody bought into.”

Gutmann sees the expansion of the campus as complementing an already lively urban campus that for many potential students lifts Penn to the top of their list. When freshmen are asked what made them decide to come to Penn, said Gutmann, “they say, ‘I visited campus and fell in love.’

Originally published on October 19, 2006.

Originally published on October 19, 2006