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Philly's Ship Comes in at the Navy Yard

If you’ve ever driven southbound on Interstate 95 in Philadelphia, perhaps through the city center and on down to the International Airport, you’ve almost certainly seen it from your driver’s-side window, probably mere seconds before the Wachovia Center appeared in your field of vision off to the right. From your perch atop the Delaware Expressway, high above the streets of the city, it may have looked to you like nothing so much as a frightening industrial mess--a 1,200-acre peninsula littered with overhead cranes and drab, low-slung military barracks.

But if you had decided instead to travel through the city by way of the boulevard known as Broad Street, which literally splits Philadelphia into an eastern and a western half, you would have eventually arrived at that peninsula, which is properly referred to as the Navy Yard, in a substantially grander fashion. For starters, you would have arrived at its gated entrance, where a guard who occupies a small booth would have either waved you in or sent you on your way. And assuming it was the former and not the latter, you would have cruised ever-so-slowly through the heart of the complex, with the cobalt blue of the Delaware River on your right, and the expansive green lawn of the Marine Parade Grounds on your left, and a sprinkling of structures everywhere: Some of them are gleaming, modern office buildings. Others are historic brick homes that have been retrofitted into mixed-use work spaces. There are massive industrial factories and distribution warehouses. Architecturally speaking, at least, nothing matches.

And to a large degree, that’s the beauty of the place.

Because if someone who had never been to Philadelphia and had never heard of the Navy Yard, for instance, was simply dropped in the middle of it all without being told what it was, or what it had once been, it’s quite likely that he wouldn’t have even the slightest clue as to the sort of magic that was taking place just inside the buildings around him.
If you were to take a close look at the history of Philadelphia’s Naval Yard, which is what it was referred to during its days as a U.S. military shipbuilding facility, you would quickly discover that it has always been an especially diverse place. Not only was it the very first naval shipyard to be founded by the American military, but it was also a place where both women and minorities could find opportunities for employment. Women, for instance, were being offered positions in the Naval Reserve there as far back as 1917, during World War I. And around the same time, a good number of African-Americans who were brought on to fill blue-collar positions, such as gardening and cooking, were eventually able to work their way through the ranks and into more prestigious jobs.

In 1995, of course, the Department of Defense made the decision to shut down operations at the Naval Yard. And even though the Philadelphia Authority of Industrial Development (PAID) now owns the Yard, which, by the way, is largely operated by the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC), that very same diverse legacy continues on today, thanks largely to the creative and ecologically-minded businesses and entrepreneurs who have since chosen the former industrial outpost as literally the perfect place to set up shop.  

Today, there are around 80 individual companies and roughly 7,500 employees working inside the Navy Yard. The master plan for today’s Navy Yard was completed in 2004 by New York’s Robert A.M. Stern Architects, which somehow had the foresight not only to organize the Yard into five different land-use areas, but also to anticipate the Yard’s current popularity: One of the five land-use areas, in fact, consists of 200 acres that were essentially put on hold for future development. And according to a recent report in the Philadelphia Business Journal, there’s a good possibility that two new buildings featuring flex space will in fact be constructed at the Yard sometime in 2010. And in a milestone move intended partly to assist Pennsylvania’s goal of greening its economy, the incredibly innovative solar panel production company Heliosphera will soon be manufacturing at the Navy Yard, creating 400 new jobs.

As for the remaining sections of the Navy Yard, there’s the Historic Core, where an astonishing two-million square feet of office and R&D space can be found. There’s the Shipyard, where many of the campuses' largest developments reside. There’s also the Corporate Center, home to the first LEED platinum-certified building in the world, 1 Crescent Drive. And finally, there’s the ever-important Research Park, where biotech labs and pharmaceutical companies are located. 

And as if that wasn’t quite enough, the Navy Yard was also designated one of Pennsylvania’s many Keystone Innovation Zones in 2005; many of the startup tech firms now based in the Yard are taking full advantage of the various tax incentives available in the KIZ, not to mention the collaborative working relationships that come about almost by default. 

Probably the best known corporation headquartered at the Navy Yard today is the clothing and housewares retailer Urban Outfitters, which also operates the Free People and Anthropologie brands, among others. Before making the decision to relocate to the Navy Yard, the Urban Outfitters corporate workforce was split between a half-dozen different buildings in Center City Philadelphia. The move was instituted in 2004 when the company’s CEO, Richard Hayne, realized that the aesthetic design of his retail stores could easily be duplicated in a grand office space at the Navy Yard, which was simply overflowing with gritty and abandoned industrial structures.

"The facilities here absolutely, 100 percent reflect the essence of our brand," he says, during a short promotional video produced by the PIDC. "We’re about light, we’re about fresh, we’re about daytime--so the natural light that you see here in the buildings in the Navy Yard is very brand appropriate."

But as far as the Navy Yard’s new identity as a corporate campus is concerned, part of its beauty and genius lies in its overall architectural differentiation--diversity in physical structures, you might say. Because while Urban’s Hayne may have been looking for the perfect source of open and natural light, there are other new Navy Yard tenants who were searching for something altogether different. Take Paramount Pictures, for instance, which recently signed leases on three separate buildings, including a multi-year lease on a 100,000 sq. ft. former seaplane hangar, which has since been converted into a soundstage where a trilogy of M. Night Shyamalan films are scheduled to be shot in upcoming years.

As Executive Director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, Sharon Pinkenson played one of the most important roles in terms of connecting Paramount with the Navy Yard.

"I've been doing this job since 1992," she says, “and I’ve always said that we needed to have a very large soundstage in Philadelphia."

But as Pinkenson is quick to admit, she had long been certain that the hangar could never work as a movie soundstage, regardless of its ideal construction and size. That’s because it sits directly in the path of commercial planes approaching the Philadelphia Airport, making the location much too noisy for proper filmmaking. And yet back in 1992, as Pinkenson says, there was simply no way that anyone in the industry could have predicted the advent of visual effects films, for which the sound is largely added during the post-production phase. "And so suddenly," Pinkenson says, "the hangar at the Navy Yard became a potentially viable solution."  

Most likely, the Paramount lease will come to an end at the same time filming concludes on the M. Night Shyamalan trilogy. And aside from having generated a huge amount of film industry income for the region, the eventual result, according to Pinkenson, is that Philadelphia will be left with what is currently the country’s largest visual effects stage. "And I think it will continue to attract other productions," she says.

As far as Tim Horan is concerned, however, the Navy Yard’s seemingly overnight success as an innovative business campus has just as much to do with the corporate culture that exists there, and the extra-curricular activities that help to facilitate that culture, as it does with the uniqueness of the space itself.

Horan is a co-owner of the Manayunk-based Philadelphia Sport and Social Club, which organizes non-competitive sports leagues for adults. He says he had always been enamored with the Navy Yard as a kid; he remembers staring down at it from I-95 on his way to Veterans Stadium. And so back in 2007, he pitched the PIDC with the idea of creating sports leagues for the various Navy Yard businesses, as a sort of value-added amenity. "The whole idea was to build some company pride," he says. "You know, some socializing with your fellow employees, some team-building. And for the PIDC’s purposes, it's a selling tool for companies that want to come in."

The PIDC has, in fact, used the benefit of Horan’s sports leagues as a selling tool. When the Tasty Baking Company approached the PIDC recently during its search for a new factory and corporate headquarters, the softball, kickball, touch-football and soccer leagues, which take place on the Yard’s Marine Parade Grounds, were a considerable draw. And while a number of Navy Yard teams have reputations for being especially skilled, and even competitive--Urban Outfitters and the McKean Defense Group are known for being home to some of best--the vast majority of the Yard’s athletes arrive on the playing field with an attitude similar to that of the Party Monsters, a team made up of employees from a party supply distributor based in the Yard. "Honestly," says Horan with a laugh, "(the Party Monsters) are not that good. But they have a lot of fun."    

And ultimately, that says quite a lot about what life is like at the Navy Yard of the 21st century, where history-making innovations in fields from clean energy to pharmaceutical research to nanotechnology are taking place on a regular basis.

Although truth be told, the overall allure of the Yard’s corporate culture is probably best explained by the PIDC Senior Vice President John Grady, who’s largely responsible for attracting the companies who may be considering the Yard as a future home base. "The Navy Yard, in essence, is a little bit of a microcosm of the city," he says. "It's big-scale and it's small-scale. There's a mix of activity down there, and it does create an environment and a culture that is very dynamic. And the more that gets added to that over time, the more we'll see that identity start to emerge. And the dynamic nature of it will undoubtedly continue."  

Dan Eldridge is an independent journalist based in Philadelphia; his clients have included Lonely Planet, Us Weekly and the Houston Chronicle. He blogs about creative entrepreneurship here.

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Massive Navy ships in view from the Urban Outfitters-operated Building 543

KIZ building near the entrance to the Navy Yard

Neo-Industrial details at the Urban Outitters Offices

Sharon Pinkenson

Tim Horan

All Photographs by Michael Persico

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