By John A. Fry
The United States is witnessing something that seemed next to impossible not long ago – the rebirth of its urban centers. Nowhere is this seismic shift more prevalent than along the 450 miles stretching from Washington to Boston, otherwise known as the Northeast Corridor. Indeed, this area is quickly becoming the nation’s epicenter of high-quality urban living.
This transformation is being driven by a powerful combination of demographic and social trends. Key among them is the millennial generation’s strong preference for working, living, learning, and socializing in urban environments. Meanwhile, aging baby boomers whose children are grown are relocating to cities for convenience, culture and excitement.
These demographic trends demand that employers consider whether to relocate office pods or entire corporate centers from the suburbs to the cities to gain access to young talent and retain senior personnel. In addition, retail and service firms are recognizing that they must provide significant offerings in growing urban centers.
Although this shift has the potential to create tremendous opportunities as demand for products, services, and development grows, it comes at a time when much of our urban transportation infrastructure is stretched beyond capacity and unable to expand. Interestingly, the major exception is Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor rail line.
The Northeast Corridor service provided by Amtrak is an asset that can be leveraged to support these societal trends and infrastructure needs. This transportation system, running through the heart of the largest population concentration in America, can produce considerable returns with reasonable investments.
This asset, particularly our urban rail stations and their surrounding neighborhoods, has potential that extends well beyond expanded transportation infrastructure. It can significantly affect long-term economic growth through commercial, residential, and retail development.
Every community with a major rail station has unique characteristics that can propel local and regional development. Whether it’s the Hudson Yards project on Manhattan’s west side, the Union Station master plan in Washington, or Drexel University’s vision of an “Innovation Neighborhood” anchored by Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, there is incredible potential in the developed and undeveloped land around the Northeast Corridor’s major urban rail stations and other facilities.
These development opportunities could also be a boon to Amtrak and the commuter-rail operators that share its tracks, and by extension to the taxpayers and passengers who fund them. The value to Amtrak and other governmental owners of developing air rights and adjacent parcels is huge. If every major station inspires a compelling strategic vision, it will not only drive urban development, but also allow Amtrak and other government agencies to reinvest in operations that will improve service.
The limited financial resources available to rail operators may make these opportunities seem out of reach. But there is a solution: public-private partnerships, not just with corporations, but also with anchor urban institutions, particularly research universities and health-care systems. That’s the model behind Drexel’s Innovation Neighborhood and its partnership with Amtrak, SEPTA, and others committed to transit-oriented urban development. The Innovation Neighborhood initiative is also meant to involve major corporations that share Drexel’s focus on leveraging Philadelphia’s location in the middle of the Northeast Corridor.
Undoubtedly this is a challenging and long-term proposition, especially when coupled with the possibility of using the air rights over the Penn Coach Yards next to 30th Street Station. But it’s a once-in-a-generation urban renewal opportunity that we must seize and capitalize on.
From Boston to Washington, there are similar opportunities in every hub of the corridor for bold new visions of our urban centers. The broader the range of partners in these efforts, the better – whether it’s rail operators, real estate developers, economic development groups, governments, or anchor institutions such as universities, hospitals, and museums.
We are witnessing a revival of transportation-oriented development to meet new demand. In this new era, urban rail stations can once again be centerpieces not only of travel, but also of commerce and learning.
We have a chance to renew the rail system and rail stations for the next century. Let’s seize the opportunity and unleash the significant value of this tremendous asset for our cities and our citizens.
John A. Fry is the president of Drexel University. This was adapted from his testimony this month to a hearing of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on railroads, pipelines, and hazardous materials.
This op-ed was originally printed in The Philadelphia Inquirer on June 24. Read it here.