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Cityage: The New American City

Remarks by President John A. Fry, November 14, 2013

Good morning. Welcome to Philadelphia and to Drexel.

It’s a pleasure and a privilege for us to host this conversation on The New American City. I don’t think there’s an event that’s a more perfect fit with our University’s mission and strategic direction at this very moment.

Who’s building cities for tomorrow? There are great mayors like our own Michael Nutter, who will join us shortly. There are CEOs, and entrepreneurs, engineers and architects. There are community and neighborhood leaders and, increasingly, there are universities, hospitals and other examples of what we’re calling “anchor institutions.”

At Drexel, we’ve staked our reputation on defining what it means to build a city and a region for the 21st century and beyond. It’s the foundation of our current strategic plan, which we called “Transforming the Modern Urban University.”

I think it’s critical to tap into the networks of thought leadership and practical experience that CityAge is creating. So this is an important event for us.

I want to thank Youngmoo Kim and his team at Drexel’s ExCITe Center for being the conduit for CityAge to come to our campus. I know you’ll have the opportunity to learn about the ExCITe Center, to see why we’re so proud of Youngmoo and his colleagues. The Center’s our hub for multi-disciplinary collaborations that bring together not only technologists and researchers but also fashion and game designers, artists and musicians, city planners and civic innovators. It’s one of the first great expressions of what Drexel is becoming, and we’re excited to leverage this great experience to other realms of the University.

Let me also take a moment to thank the people who have made CityAge into a force for new urban thinking, led by founders Miro Cernetig and Marc Andrew. We’re honored to be able to partner with them.

Finally, let me thank all of you for coming from all over to be with us in Philadelphia. It’s great to be in a room of people who believe in cities, and who share a vision for the pivotal role cities should play in our society going forward.

I know you’re discussing the economic value of cities, how a certain density of people, institutions and ideas fosters new ventures and new vitality.  And I’m sure that most of you also believe, like we do at Drexel, in the educational value of cities.

There’s the value provided by a city’s concentration of career and cultural opportunities, for sure. But there’s also great value in the civic consciousness created by living among neighbors of many backgrounds, from many different places, with different levels of economic means, sharing neighborhoods and working together to solve problems.

My office is across the street, in the building where our institution was founded in 1891. Our founder, Anthony J. Drexel, conceived of his institute as a specific answer to the challenges and opportunities facing the urban population at the turn of the last century. It’s a point of pride that we have continued to ask these questions and seek and find those answers, which has kept our mission as a University contemporary and dynamic.

Our pursuit of those questions and answers takes place along multiple dimensions. There’s the dimension of education and student preparation, of course.

The city is particularly important for Drexel’s signature educational program, cooperative education, under which our students alternate classroom study with up to 18 months of full-time, paid professional experience. Today they go around the world to get that experience. But the biggest portion still takes place at our region’s corporations, start-ups and nonprofit and government agencies.

A second dimension along which we work in this city is neighborhood partnerships, improving the quality of life for all of us who call Philadelphia our home.  I’ve stated publicly that Drexel will become the most civically engaged university in the nation. We see this engagement as the alignment of key University resources like volunteer efforts, academic projects and problem solving, and strategic institutional investments in the economic growth and public safety of the community.

We’ve founded the Lindy Center for Civic Engagement, which helps channel the enormous grassroots energy that our students and employees bring to serving the community. And we’ve launched the Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships, built as one of the country’s first urban extension centers, matching the expertise and needs of Drexel and our neighbors.

But the final dimension, and maybe the most impactful, is Drexel’s vision for the new American city as a hub of innovation and economic development. We have a responsibility to use our unique capacity for innovation to create jobs and value.

We’re fortunate to have developed considerable strengths in translational research, which turns scientific discovery into commercially viable technologies and services. We have great people, and great ideas.
And just as important, we’ve got a great location in one of America’s strongest intellectual ecosystems, alongside our friends at the University of Pennsylvania and the University City Science Center next door and in one of the world’s most vital and best-located urban centers.

Recognizing the opportunity inherent in our location, Drexel has invested in underutilized land so that we now control a “super-block” of more than 12 acres of city land adjacent to our campus. There are some buildings on it, but it’s mostly parking lots and underutilized open space. And amazingly, that super-block sits right next to Amtrak’s 30th Street Station, the nation’s third busiest train station on the “50 yard-line” of the East Coast.

We’ve undertaken a mixed-use academic, commercial, residential and retail development called the Innovation Neighborhood that I think fits right in with the most important stories in urban transformation today. We’re building on several principles.

The first principle is to co-locate our researchers with corporate partners who can help us create commercial impact leading to a more vibrant local economy.  I don’t think it’s a stretch to envision a technology-driven ecosystem like Cambridge, Research Triangle or Silicon Valley, with all the innovation and economic vibrancy that implies.

Another core principle is to use the Northeast Corridor as a competitive advantage. Imagine the impact for businesses of being midway between the American financial and civic capitals, and potentially less than an hour from each, with true high-speed rail.

The next and biggest transformational opportunity around 30th Street is the development of the air rights over the 80-plus acre Penn Coach Yards, immediately north of 30th Street Station. It’s Philadelphia’s own Hudson Yards, and it’s a key dimension of a master planning process that Drexel, Amtrak and Brandywine Properties have partnered to begin.

That’s a many-decades initiative. But if there’s any group I can talk about playing the long game, it’s this group.

I’d like to spend a few minutes now presenting some of what we’ve undertaken at Drexel through our Campus Master Plan and the Innovation Neighborhood strategy. I hope this gives you some insight into how academic institutions are starting to tackle some of the issues that are important to all of you.

If you have any comments or are interested in learning more, feel free to get in touch with me. Now I’m looking forward to discussing these issues and many more with Mayor Nutter, so I’ll turn the podium back over to Bill.  Thank you.