Thoughts on the Navy Yard


I spent an afternoon at the Navy Yard yesterday.  It had been a while since I was there and I was amazed at the transformation that has occurred over the past 12 months.  The Navy Yard is alive and, if Liberty Property Trust and PIDC can successfully realize their grand development plans for the site, it will be quite dramatic.  Roughly speaking, the Navy Yard is equivalent in size to the Philadelphia’s Central Business District.  It has water features (the river and, coming soon, man made canals), wide boulevards and wonderful parks and open spaces.  As land is plentiful, structures are oriented horizontally as opposed to vertically which means buildings are only four or five stories.  This scale was comfortable and I didn’t feel overwhelmed by the buildings as can happen with the skyscrapers in some cities.

Clearly the Navy Yard is not for everyone as it currently lacks two major qualities many tenants require: (1) access to public transportation and (2) amenities within walking distance.  While the latter will presumably come if the Navy Yard ultimately achieves its target office population of 20,000 workers, the latter may never be realized.  Further, without a significant residential component to the development, whatever energy there is at the Navy Yard during the day will disappear at 6 pm.  Though there are plans for a new 300 unit residential apartment project (deed restrictions imposed by the Navy currently prevent residential development), without significantly more full time residents, there will not be sufficient population to support the amenities that make a true neighborhood.

Despite its drawbacks, the Navy Yard provides Philadelphia with a very unique opportunity to, in effect, define what a city in the 21st Century would look like if you could start with a clean slate and land was no obstacle.  No other major city has such a large, raw piece of property that can be master planned to reflect the ideal work/life balance of today.  Most cities are fully developed and any new construction or development is necessarily limited to isolated lots.  Rarely are new parks or open spaces created.  The Navy Yard is a blend of the open space afforded by the suburbs and some of the energy and vibe of the city.  As I walked through the Navy Yard I saw many young workers playing catch with their dogs (dogs are allowed in the workplace at some companies there), working outside with laptops and taking in the views of the river.  The Navy Yard is home to  many different users including pharmaceutical companies, a University and a health care system. I was surprised to learn that less than one third of the companies there are taking advantage of the KOIZ benefits. Most are there for the unique environment and cutting edge office product, and not the tax breaks.

Again, the Navy Yard cannot provide what the City does and doesn’t pretend to.  There are currently no restaurants (a restaurant is planned for the new Marriott, the Urban Outfitter’s funky cafeteria is open to the public and rumor is that Liberty is talking to some iconic Philadelphia restaurateurs about a new venue at the Gatehouse entrance), movie theaters, fitness centers or bars within the Navy Yard.  While most of the new buildings are LEED certified, reflecting a commitment to sustainable design, because there is no public transportation (shuttle vans go back and forth from Market East station and the Pattison Avenue Station to the Navy Yard all day), most workers will drive to the Navy Yard, thereby increasing their employer’s carbon footprint. Hopefully one day we will see scores of charging stations for electric cars at the Navy Yard.

The Navy Yard serves an important role for the future of our city.  Our existing building stock in Center City is aging with no exciting new office buildings since the early 1990s other than Cira and Comcast Tower (outside of University City’s Science Center).  We are falling behind other cities in that regard.  More and more companies in the CBD are expressing frustration with the choices available to them.  Our “trophy” towers are now almost 25 years old and, while they are still wonderful buildings, for some tenants, these buildings no longer generate the excitement they once did.  Without the Navy Yard, Center City companies looking for something new and different might otherwise flee to the suburbs or, worse yet for Pennsylvania, move out of state.  With all of its shiny new buildings and infrastructure, the Navy Yard provides an interesting contrast to the CBD as well as a look into what the future may hold.  Again, it’s not for everybody, but it’s certainly worth a look.

For more information contact Glenn Blumenfeld

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