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With Pennovation, Forgotten Bottom looks to its future

The incubator for innovation is a sign of things to come for the neighborhood

Charles Meehan knew what Philly neighborhood he wanted to live in years—decades, really—before he actually made the move. "I’ve known the existence of the neighborhood for about 20 years," says Meehan. "It was just a nice area, tucked away and kind of quiet."

Forgotten Bottom is a tiny enclave of a couple hundred residential homes that sits right on the edge of the Schuylkill River. It earned its name because for the most part, it’s always seemed to go unnoticed, despite being surrounded by years of racial tension and strife.

But there have already been some changes afoot in and around Forgotten Bottom. At the corner of 34th and Grays Ferry Avenue, a fence features big, red letters that spell out the word, "Pennovation" in capital letters.

Beyond the fence, a spaceship-looking warehouse sits on the 23-acre industrial site, filled with entrepreneurs, scientists, and designers all looking for their next, or rather first, big break. It’s Pennovation Center, and when it officially opens on Friday, October 28 it will signify the start of a new era for not just the University of Pennsylvania, but the so-called Forgotten Bottom.

The largest chemical company in Southwest Philadelphia

Penn’s place in the history of the Forgotten Bottom starts in 2010. But the 23-acre site that borders the neighborhood within a neighborhood (Grays Ferry) wasn’t always an abandoned industrial site. It has a rich history as an industrial and research hub that dates back to the 1860s.

The site was originally home to the Harrison Brothers’ Grays Ferry Chemical Company, a producer of paints and sulfuric acid. From 1863 through the early 1900s, the massive paint production company hummed along the Schuylkill River, employing as many as 500 people.

A site plan of Grays Ferry Chemical Company from 1894.
Courtesy of Free Library of Philadelphia

In 1917, the Delaware-based DuPont Chemical Company bought the Harrison Brothers, ultimately turning the 23-acre site into a mostly research-based facility, demolishing its structures and constructing new warehouses in their place.

For nearly a century, the chemical giant continued its operations at the paint plant. But in 2009, in the midst of the financial crisis, DuPont announced it would be closing its production facility, citing "the worldwide recession which has taken a huge toll on our customers in the automotive industries."

Lucky for DuPont, right around that time Penn had been eyeing the large swath of land, looking for a place to make Pennovation become a reality. And in 2010, the university bought the property for $13 million.

An incubator for innovation

On a recent day in October, the grounds at Pennovation are buzzing with activity. As a long line of cars make their way past to Interstate 76, two young adults stand in what resembles an over-sized batting cage, carefully eyeing a drone as it zooms up and around them. A Penn veterinarian does tricks with an enthusiastic puppy-in-training across the parking lot.

Meanwhile, robots are taking over the third floor of the warehouse-turned-innovation incubator, Pennovation Center.

Top: The second floor of Pennovation Center features a set of stairs where entrepreneurs can practice their pitches. Bottom: Hershey's new headquarters.

The 58,000-square-foot center was designed by HWKN, who transformed an old DuPont warehouse into a glorified co-working space for future entrepreneurs, scientists, and designers with big plans for the future. KSS Architects was the executive architect.

"President Dr. Amy Gutman wanted to create a true facility that could be an incubator for entrepreneurs and innovators," says Ed Datz, executive director of real estate at Penn.

Dawn Bonnell, Vice Provost for Research, says the Pennovation Center grew out of a necessity. "Our mission here is to create knowledge," she says. "We needed a place to figure out how to get our ideas out into the world, into the commercial space."

Managed by Benjamin’s Desk, the center features innovator garages on the first floor, where tenants can set up shop and have quick access to the outdoors for more experimentation. There are multiple laboratories filled with 3D printers and expensive equipment that these start-up companies wouldn’t necessarily have access to otherwise. And there is a cleverly-designed set of stadium stairs on the second level for entrepreneurs to practice their pitches in front of others.

Photo by Melissa Romero
HWKN designed a new angular structure at Pennovation Center, which serves as a place for inventors to share ideas with University City as its backdrop.
Our mission here is to create knowledge

In the days leading up to Pennovation’s official opening on Friday, October 28, the center already has more than a dozen members, ranging from Blue Pen Biomarkers, a group of scientists who are developing a blood test that can assess one’s heart health, to Hershey, the center’s first corporate tenant.

And then there’s the third floor, which is reserved for the Penn Engineering Research and Collaboration Hub (PERCH). Along with tinkering with drones and robots, the students and researchers are figuring out how to develop technologies with long-lasting value.

"We’re putting the research back into this place, just with a modern lift," says Craig Carnaroli, Penn’s executive vice president and economic development leader.

This is only the beginning

When university officials cut the ribbon at the grand opening at Pennovation, they’ll do so with a pair of scissors printed using the center’s 3D printing machine. But it will only mark the start of what’s in store for Forgotten Bottom.

"The center is considered the anchor initiative of the city’s bigger plans for the Schuylkill River," says Anne Papageorge, vice president of facilities and real estate services.

An abandoned silo sits across the street from Pennovation.

That includes facilitating a better connection from University City to Grays Ferry with the opening of the Schuylkill Crossing trail. Currently, there’s a Penn shuttle available to tenants, and there’s no shortage of parking lots at Pennovation. But in a city that’s rapidly embracing bike commuting, a safer connection is needed for workers commuting to the campus.

Penn’s also in discussion with PIDC, Philadelphia’s public-private economic development corporation about the abandoned silo across the street from Pennovation, says Datz.

Other buildings will meet the same fate as the center and will be repurposed. From there, Penn plans for more purpose-built buildings on the site. "We do anticipate that with growth, there will probably be other opportunities for food and beverage operators," says Ed Datz, executive director of real estate. Currently, there is just one cafe at the center.

Meehan, the three-year resident and long-time admirer of Forgotten Bottom, points to another big sign of change: The university’s mortgage assistance program, which provides loans to Penn employees for housing, now includes Meehan’s neighborhood and Grays Ferry.

"Forgotten Bottom doesn’t change very rapidly," says Meehan, who has now lived there for three years. "But change is certainly coming."