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Penn History

A History of the University City Science Center Part 2: Planning the University City Science Center (1959-1965)

This exhibit was researched and written by MacKenzie S. Carlson in September 1999

In April 1959, the University of Pennsylvania, the Drexel Institute of Technology (now Drexel University), the Presbyterian Hospital in Philadelphia, the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science, and the Philadelphia College of Osteopathy announced their plans to form a non- profit corporation devoted to promoting social development in West Philadelphia. The West Philadelphia Corporation (WPC) was chartered for this purpose on 9 July 1959. The Corporation’s objective was of “University City not only as a good place to live because of its cultural and education environment, but also as a prospective center of private research.” Planners initially conceived of a huge tower in University City to fulfill its potential as a “center of private research.” By August 1960, the WPC was collaborating with the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC) to move ahead with plans for the tower. Five months later, the two corporations had selected a tentative site for the tower-on 31st Street between Chestnut and Walnut-and had described the finished product as a $30 million, 33-story tower that would employ 5000 persons. In the spring of 1961, however, preliminary studies showed that the 31st Street site was inadequate for their purposes, so the WPC and PIDC conferred with the RDA to determine a more suitable location. By late summer, they had chosen a new site between Market Street and Lancaster Avenue from 34th to 36th Streets, a part of the RDA’s University City Unit 3 Urban Renewal Area (see below). The planners believed that this new location would allow for the construction of several smaller scientific buildings around the tower, and they hoped to begin building in the spring of 1962. But despite its planners’ enthusiasm and good intentions, a giant science tower was never constructed in University City.

The urban redevelopment process as defined in the Housing Act of 1949 and subsequent legislation required several steps at the local and national levels before any land could be cleared or buildings could be constructed. In Philadelphia’s case, the City Planning Commission first had to certify areas of the city for redevelopment. The Planning Commission had previously certified for redevelopment areas in West Philadelphia south of Market (the University Redevelopment Area on 9 January 1948) and north of Market (the Powelton Redevelopment Area on 10 May 1950), but it revised these plans in May 1957. The Planning Commission’s annual report in 1957 still referred to the “University”and “Powelton”Redevelopment Areas, but its 1958 report mentioned the “University City”Redevelopment Area. The author believes that the revisions that the Planning Commission made in 1957 carved the University City Redevelopment Area out of the University and Powelton Areas and created five Urban Renewal Units within this new area. University City Units 1 and 2 (or “Project A'”) were developed by Penn and Drexel in the late 1950s and early 1960s; the University City Science Center (see below) was the primary redeveloper of Unit 3; Penn and Drexel continued to expand their campuses in Units 4 and 5, respectively.

The next step in the redevelopment process called for the RDA to make a detailed plan of the intended site and send it-along with data on population, housing, and cost-to the federal government for approval. In June 1961, the RDA submitted an Urban Renewal Survey and Planning Application for Unit 3 to Philadelphia’s City Council, requesting a loan from the federal government to cover the costs of surveying and planning. Mayor Dilworth signed an ordinance on 24 August 1961 approving the RDA’s application, and in late December 1961, the federal Urban Renewal Administration approved $317,461 for planning in Unit 3. The RDA would have to repay this money (with interest) once it received the more substantial federal funds to undertake the actual project. Over the next several months, the RDA worked (with the West Philadelphia Corporation as an unpaid consultant) on detailed plans for Unit 3, centering them on the planned science tower on Market Street. The City Planning Commission approved the RDA’s initial plans in May 1962. The final steps in the redevelopment planning process were for City Council to approve the final project and the federal government to authorize the major part of the project’s funding. Even so, almost five years passed before the RDA could initiate redevelopment proceedings.

In January 1963, Gaylord P. Harnwell, President of both the University of Pennsylvania and the West Philadelphia Corporation, appointed a committee chaired by E.B. Shils, Professor of Industry in the Wharton School, to advise a course of action for the University to take on the possible development of a science center in University City. The committee reported back three months later, encouraging Penn to assume the responsibility of controlling the prospective center by maintaining a majority on its governing boards. Then in June, a consulting firm hired by the University’s Trustees issued its own report advising that the plans for a research center in University City were in the University’s best interests. Embracing these recommendations, Penn joined with Drexel, the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science, Presbyterian Hospital, and Temple University to submit articles of incorporation for the University City Science Center (UCSC) and the University City Science Institute (UCSI) to the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas on 28 October 1963.

The UCSC was conceived to develop real estate at the service of the UCSI; the UCSI-a wholly-owned subsidiary of the UCSC-was conceived to promote scientific research, maintain research facilities, recruit and support scientists and technicians to work at those facilities, and exchange and publish the fruits of the research undertaken at those facilities. In other words, the UCSC would acquire land and construct buildings in which the UCSI would enable researchers to develop and sell their ideas. A few days after the incorporation of the Science Center and Institute, officials from the WPC and the PIDC announced that they had changed their plans for the research center in University City from a giant tower to a larger, lower-level complex; research had indicated that it was unsafe to perform certain types of scientific experiments at the higher altitudes of a 33-story building. The first buildings in the complex were scheduled to be constructed in 1965, and planners hoped to complete the project by the end of the decade.

While the plans for a science center in University City certainly delighted the city’s press and many local officials and researchers, among others, most people living in the area where the center was to be built believed that the plans neglected their needs entirely. Soon after the Urban Renewal Administration gave money to the RDA in late 1961 for planning in Unit 3, about 250 concerned citizens living in that area formed a “Citizens Committee for University City, Area 3″and made a statement that they favored redevelopment but demanded a role in the “decision-making process.” In early 1963 the Group for Planning and Research (GPR) completed a plan for Unit 3 for the RDA which called for the demolition of most housing in the area. The RDA rejected the plan, which was sure to be unpopular with Unit 3 residents. As a result, the GPR incorporated more housing into its final plans, which it published in three parts in late 1963 and early 1964. But before these revisions took place, members of the Citizens Committee occupied Mayor James H. J. Tate’s office for nine hours in protest on 16 May 1963, ceasing only after the RDA issued a statement promising that it would save as many homes in Unit 3 as possible. This statement read:

We, the undersigned, reaffirm [that] the urban renewal policy of the city administration and the Redevelopment Authority is the saving of every possible residential structure. Even where it is necessary to clear certain structures because they are completely dilapidated and blighted, as many houses as possible will be saved in line with this policy. This policy specifically applies to University City, Unit 3.

The plans which have been prepared for Unit 3, were drawn up by a consultant in line with the standard procedure of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. These plans have not been adopted by the authority.

We stipulate that in reviewing the proposal of the consultant, the policy guide will be to save every possible home in this area. Before any decisions are reached, we will continue to discuss the entire program with the affected resident…. These discussions … will be in the light of our policy of preserving every home that can be saved. No final decision will be reached without giving an opportunity to the residents in the area to discuss this decision with the undersigned.

We agree, through the Redevelopment Authority, to point out to the West Philadelphia Corp. the desirability of broad citizen participation in its board, including participation by the Citizens Committee of University City, Unit 3.

We agree to appoint the Citizens Committee … as citizen advisers to the Unit 3 project.

Despite the protests, plans for the science center continued to advance. On 20 March 1964, the RDA officially designated the University City Science Center Corporation as redeveloper of a portion of Unit 3 “generally along both sides of Market S. between 34th and 40th.” Later in the year, the RDA undertook a census to determine the exact population of Unit 3. By its count, a total of 2653 persons (574 families and 580 individuals living alone) would be displaced by redevelopment in all of Unit 3. The RDA did not, however, concern itself with an exact population count for each city block or redevelopment area, for in 1964 no redevelopment plans had yet been officially approved. Near the end of the decade, the University of Pennsylvania stated officially that the UCSC displaced “an estimated 666 persons,”but by a close re-examination of the RDA census data, one can only estimate that between 550 and 700 people were displaced by the UCSC.

Furthermore, the 1964 RDA census data differs significantly from that of the 1960 federal census. In 1960, the federal Census Bureau recorded 4496 persons living in all of what was to become Unit 3. Of these, 1014 were living in the land later redeveloped by the Science Center. These figures, which seem to be reliable, are approximately 70% greater than those recorded by the RDA four years later. There are several possible explanations for the large disparity between the two sets of numbers. Officials accounted for it by implying that many Unit 3 residents, having learned of the imminent redevelopment in their area, decided to leave the area “without Redevelopment Authority help.” In addition, the RDA may not have included in its census people who, for whatever reason, would not be displaced by redevelopment. A last and least appealing possibility is that either the RDA census or the federal census contained inaccurate data on University City’s population.