A former hot-sheets motel and prison halfway house, which sits on wooden posts on the West Philly edge of the Schuylkill near an I-76 on-ramp, could become the University of Pennsylvania's missing link, connecting its campuses in West Philly with its Pennovation business incubator at the former DuPont Co. paint plant on Grays Ferry Avenue in South Philadelphia.
A proposed rezoning of the 600 South University Ave. site from medium-industrial to CMX-5 would let the owner or tenant build something creative — even something large — on the triangle of land and the low-water Schuylkill riverbed that is part of the property. The change has been recommended by City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who represents the district and has the say, despite a lack of support from the city Planning Commission, which dislikes "spot zoning," reports Jake Blumgart in PlanPhilly.
The property is controlled by Philadelphia Suburban Development Corp., the Nicoletti family firm that for 40 years has specialized in, well, suburban developments, such as the recent hotel, stores and housing it installed along the Pennsylvania Turnpike exit in Kulpsville (Towamencin Township). The firm also invests in city-based prison halfway houses and other state-contracted facilities, some like the old motel that are now worth a lot more than when the Nicolettis acquired them. Mark Nicoletti told me he's not ready to talk about plans until the zoning is settled. Maybe next month.
Blackwell says she doesn't know much about the plan, but she's in favor because "it's Penn," the city's largest employer.
Blumgart called the site "an isolated plot of land accessible only by automobile."
How isolated is it, really? To be sure, SEPTA buses don't run that far down South University Avenue or across the 34th Street Bridge.
But Penn vans go past the motel's chained doors many times a day, carrying staff and students to and from Pennovation. And there are sidewalks on both sides of the road, which walkers can take from Grays Ferry to SEPTA's University City train station. Hardy foot commuters from Point Breeze and Grays Ferry pass by twice a day. The concrete sidewalk is crumbly, but the view of the University City and Center City skylines can't be beat, especially at night.
The motel is a short walk (under a SEPTA overpass carrying the Media/Elwyn, Wilmington, and Airport Regional Rail trains) from the VA Medical Center, the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, and Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
The motel sits across busy 34th Street from Penn's southernmost athletic fields and the giant chillers that cool the campus and its labs.
It's also just across the Schuylkill from Pennovation, where Qualcomm, Comcast, Hershey, and other big companies share space with start-ups and Penn engineers on a property that is cradled by a riverside park and hiking trial. But to leave the motel, you have to cross the open Schuylkill Expressway ramp, which means dodging cars during rush hour. Yes, the site needs work.
The spot looks less isolated when you consider the network of walking bridges that Penn has built in "Penn Park" above its tracks and tennis courts, farther north in the same space between I-76 and the railroad and river. It would be a bigger job to expand access by opening the railroad wall that runs behind the medical school and its parking garage.
Maybe Penn could build a second pedestrian bridge above 38th Street, like the one to the north that carries crowds of students to class on Locust Walk. And maybe, finally, there'll be room for another footbridge, across the river, to Pennovation and the hiking and biking trail on the east side of the Schuylkill.