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The Ripple Effect

Philadelphia's historic naval shipyard is reborn as a corporate campus.

By Liz Spikol
November 2013
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Courtesy Robert A.M. Stern Architects

When trendsetting lifestyle company Urban Outfitters opened its U.S. corporate campus at the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 2004, it was seen as the beginning of a hopeful new chapter for the military base that had been closed for almost 20 years. Though Urban was not the first company to move into the Navy Yard in the site's post-military iteration, it was the first to gravitate to the space for its potential as the anti-suburban office park. The company also saw design gold in dilapidated buildings that other corporate entities had seen as eyesores. Minneapolis-based architects Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle adapted four abandoned buildings for Urban Outfitters that mimic the aesthetics of the brands (Urban Outfitters, Free People, Anthropologie). For Philadelphia residents and business leaders who had long thought of the vast, empty Navy Yard as inhospitable, the college campus–style environment turned the Yard into 1,200 acres of possibility.

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Now there are 130 companies at the Navy Yard, 65 percent of them new to Philadelphia, and, in February, the nation's first naval shipyard celebrated a major milestone: 10,000 employees. Though job creation has been the primary driver for the redevelopment of the Navy Yard since the 1990s, the area has also evolved in ways city planners did not anticipate 20 years ago. The Navy Yard has in fact become a cutting-edge incubator for energy-efficient technologies. It boasts: the largest collection of LEED-certified buildings in the region; its own electric grid that serves as a test bed for new energy technology; a menu of streetscapes that comprise a trial site for the Philadelphia Water Department; an innovation hub funded by the Department of Energy; innumerable green spaces, including a fifth park now in progress; and transportation initiatives to minimize the impact of commuting.

"The success has been overwhelming," says Brian Berson of Liberty Property Trust, the guiding force behind the Navy Yard's Corporate Center. "It has been incredibly robust." So robust, in fact, that real estate insiders worry that the site is surpassing Philly's downtown as the city's business district.

"[Sustainability] is a methodology. It's a perspective from which we make all of our decisions in terms of what we support when we go forward with a master plan," says Will Agate, senior vice president for the Navy Yard at Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC), a nonprofit joint venture between the city and the chamber of commerce, which controls the Navy Yard's planning and development. That perspective wasn't always PIDC's guide, but Agate says two key forces made it happen. "For the master plan, we chose New York architect Robert A.M. Stern, who felt very strongly that the Navy Yard lent itself to showing what a sustainable community could mean," Agate says. The second major influence was Mayor Michael Nutter's campaign pledge to make Philadelphia the greenest city in the country. "Our project is very strongly supported by the mayor's office," Agate continues.

There's an overarching shift as well, a change in culture over the last 10 years. "There is a much bigger interest in sustainability as part of how businesses make decisions," says Agate. "Glaxo's decision was made around sustainability and attracting the next generation of employees."

Agate is referring to GlaxoSmithKline's corporate headquarters (GSK), which relocated to the Yard from suburban Philadelphia last year. The 208,000-square-foot glass-walled building was developed by Liberty/Synterra Partners and designed by Robert A. M. Stern Architects. It achieved Platinum certification for both LEED CS and LEED CI. The company claims all the energy conservation measures "add up to an estimated 30 percent reduction in annual energy costs as compared to a traditional office building."

Glaxo isn't the only pharma presence with an eye toward sustainability at the Navy Yard. In September, LEED Gold certification was awarded to Iroko Pharmaceuticals' new 56,412-square-foot headquarters, designed by local firm DIGSAU. John Vavricka, Iroko's president and CEO, says the site's commitment to smart energy innovation and sustainability was a big factor in the decision to build there.

There's no greater contributor to the Navy Yard's green credibility than the Energy Efficient Buildings (EEB) Hub established by the Department of Energy. One of only five hub projects in the U.S., it was developed to address energy efficiency in existing real estate. The EEB Hub is currently constructing two demonstration projects designed by KieranTimberlake on the Navy Yard campus. The Hub was dealt a blow in June when the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended it be defunded, but Agate says he is hopeful the program will continue.

As for the future of the rest of the Navy Yard, an update of the 2004 master plan has been released by Robert Stern's office. When Stern presented the update in February, he said, "Though our plan has evolved . . . its basic principles are intact. The update proposes, as did our original plan, a dynamic mixed-use waterfront community with all that a great city can offer."

Indeed, the master plan update doesn't shake things up too much but expands the goals to: accommodate 30,000 employees; build the campus out completely; and bring a stronger focus to creating green spaces, public gathering areas, and recreational amenities. The Corporate Center, where the LEED-certified buildings are clustered, will be renamed the Central Green District. There will be a new district along the Delaware River and a new seven-acre park to enhance an existing district. Additionally, the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority will help create a port expansion.

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