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The Science Center’s Billion-dollar Development Hopes To Buck The Trend Of Gentrification

Just north of the University City Science Center’s empire sits a sprawling pile of rubble.

It’s the beginning of a major expansion for the 52-year-old research park — and a major question mark, too. Can the Science Center redevelop this property and also engage the community around it, instead of following a longstanding trend of displacement?

It’s something CEO Steve Tang hopes for.

The research park announced last week that it would essentially double in size, as part of a $1 billion project with real estate developer Wexford Science + Technology to revamp the 14-acre former University City High School property. They’re going to call it uCity Square.

Drexel University purchased the site from the School District in 2014 for $25 million and ground-leased it to Wexford, which initially invested $18.2 million in the project, according to anSEC filing from 2014.

It’s a longterm project, with the first two phases slated to finish in a little over two years.

The new development will expand the Science Center’s empire north of Market Street up to Powelton Street and feature office buildings, public spaces and businesses — “a true community where one can live, work and play,” Tang said, repeating a line that he’s often used to describe his vision for the Science Center’s future. Drexel also plans to build a K-8 school nearby.

But he also said that the Science Center hopes to use this development as an opportunity to make the tech scene reach more of Philadelphia.

“For too long, innovation and entrepreneurship have been viewed as an elite offering for people that are just in the sciences and technical areas,” he said. “What we’re trying do is make those concepts more approachable.”

It’s still early in the project, but one of the ways Tang said the Science Center plans to do this is by investing in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs at Drexel’s planned school. (The Science Center already runs a STEAM program called FirstHand.)

He also said that he’s dedicated to engaging the community that exists around the proposed development.

“What’s happened in the past, when Penn and Drexel were beginning to grow, was that there was a lot of displacement and tension between the neighborhoods and the institutions,” he said. “We’re trying to create an environment where there’s really a community between the two.”

It’s a timely conversation. Just last month, some raised questions about how a proposed makerspace project in the fomer Bok Technical School building would affect the neighborhood.

In this regard, Tang said he hopes to learn from West Philadelphia’s history.

“What we’re trying to do is look back and do it better,” he said.

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Kristen Fitch

Senior Director, Marketing