Renderings for Philly's Lower Schuylkill Master Plan are somewhat romanticized, naturally, showing little computer-generated families strolling along the banks of a computer-generated river, watching computer-generated kayakers boat by. Computer-generated children frolic, a computer-generated dog is being walked. Yet if any of this urban utopia becomes a reality within the next couple of decades, the city of Philadelphia will have Dylan Salmons, 25, among its list of people to thank.
In 2012, Salmons, a New Jersey native, left the University of Pennsylvania's graduate architecture program to pursue real-world career opportunities, eventually joining the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC) as an assistant real estate manager. He had been interning there, and had been "thinking about whether or not I was going to return to the University of Pennsylvania. But being in the more pragmatic world and having some really great insight and access to stuff, I decided to take the contract position. I told them, 'Sure, I'll work to get the Lower Schuylkill out the door.'"
From the time he was a kid, Salmons had always been interested in design and construction. Working summers for his dad's building company "directed me into architecture," Salmons says, and while at Penn for grad school he joined the Wharton Real Estate Club. "Architecture school was my full-on designer 'explore-everything mode,'" he says. "While Wharton allowed me to balance that with pragmatism, plus it allowed me to connect with people who had skin in the game." Combine these interests with an undergraduate degree in the urban-planning side of landscape architecture: it's no wonder Salmons was just the guy to help devise a plan to redevelop 3,700 acres of vacant industrial land along the lower banks of the Schuylkill River.
Salmons summarizes the project as such: "There's a critical shortage of modern industrial sites in the city, and based on its size and its industrial character, plus its transportation infrastructure, the Lower Schuylkill was identified as the prime opportunity to satisfy Philadelphia's 21st-century industrial needs." In other words: new industry and commercial space, new parkland and trails, and new roads, all revitalizing a six-mile stretch running from University City to the Philadelphia International Airport. "Right now there are a bunch of auto retailers and wholesalers on that strip," Salmons says. "We can say we want to build these things, but ultimately what is the infrastructure the city needs to provide in order to convert this real estate to highest and best use? We need to be planning for all these roadway networks, infrastructure and signage, park space, and so on. The plan is also pretty rigorous when it comes to contemporary stormwater practice, the idea is that we're going to begin to attract many types of users."
Work will go in phases, of course, running north to south, and it could take decades to implement in full. Following the city's adoption of the plan in May, Salmons moved on—he's now working as a contractor and consultant to developers and designers in the area. "This position has allowed me to continue very much in the same vein as with the Lower Schuylkill Master Plan," he says, "providing insight on land uses, schematic design—both architectural and landscape—branding and identity creation, as well as getting into the nitty-gritty economic output. Provided that I am able to maintain the flexibility of working on several projects of varying scales and programs, I see myself operating in this role for some time. It's pretty exciting. While it's never certain what the future has in store for us, ultimately I imagine building an office aimed at delivering inspiring, creative, and sustainable environments for people to live and work."
Here's the breakdown of the Lower Schuylkill Master Plan:
STATS: 3,700 acres are targeted for redevelopment, providing the opportunity to leverage as many as 5,500 to 6,500 permanent new jobs. The plan projects a $411M public infrastructure investment, such as roads and public spaces, and an additional $860M in private investment.
LAYOUT: The plan is divided into three areas. At the northernmost edge, near University City (a catchall term for the area encompassing Drexel, Penn, and the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia) will be the Innovation District. "The idea of that space is that a lot of the innovation is coming out of the universities, and while these really great people are on the cusp and getting ready to roll, they really need a lot of the university infrastructure," Salmons explains. "So you'll have smaller, flex-size buildings, maybe 30,000 to 60,000 square feet, all divisible space to capture those startup artisanal-industrial owners. Think: R&D space, smaller manufacturers of, say, specialty bike parts, that kind of stuff. The next Nalgene guy." In the center will be the Logistics Hub, described (PDF) on the project summary as "a highly competitive center for distribution, warehousing, and manufacturing, with superior connections to Philadelphia's expanding international airport, two interstate highways, and a dense regional population." Finally, the Energy Corridor brings up the southernmost tip; this area would make use of the existing oil re?neries and natural gas facilities to provide a home for Philly-based energy companies, including new energy firms.
STORMWATER MANAGEMENT: The river setting presented a rather unique challenge, and stormwater management will be divided between private (owners and developers will install green roofs, drainage wells in parking lots, tree plantings) and public (stormwater treatment underneath roads and parkland spaces). As an incentive to attract business owners, the plan calls for much of the footwork to be in place before anyone signs a lease. "Philadelphia has a stigma of having a difficult tax system for business owners," Salmons explains, "so when we stated with the Lower Schuylkill we got together with the water department to form a memorandum of understanding that we're going to create this as sort of a plug-and-play stormwater project. In other words, we're going to predevelop 80 acres of stormwater management into the sites already so when owners come in, and prospective land developers come in, we say, OK, build your building here and you can already plug in and wash away 50 percent of your stormwater use, because we're going to have it built into the ground already. It's the first of its kind."
PUBLIC GREEN SPACE AND TRAILS: The plan will add 46 new acres of green space and five miles of new trails. "We have something really great going for us, which is the Schuylkill River River Trail. That has achieved tremendous success in the past number of years and will be tying in directly to the Lower Schuylkill," Salmons says. "It'll be a continuation of what trail is already there now, with tons of poeple riding it, biking it, dog walking, rollerblading—so that's going to come across the river and come down through a good two-thirds of the project, with a series of parks around trailhead parks along the way. There will be parks every mile along this really great trail extension."
COMMERCIAL SPACE: While some buildings exist now, primarily in the northernmost Innovation District, Salmons says, "it's kind of become this really segmented parcel space where there's very little built up." He adds: "The entire 3,700 acres is tough to plan, and it makes very little sense to draw those lines—we had looked at a few cool leftover spaces that could possibly be reused and redeveloped. It's not quite a tabula rasa—not quite a blank slate—but there's going to be legwork for a lot of industries to design and build the spaces they need."