For years, the western banks of the Schuylkill River were a strange dead zone in Philadelphia. Aside from 30th Street Station and a large regional Post Office HQ, the area was really just a series of ghostly streets, ugly bridges and graffitied overpasses. With the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University to the west, the skyscrapers of Center City to the east, and entrances to major highways, the area was extraordinarily underutilized.
Oh how times have changed. First came the Left Bank in 2001, a warehouse at 32nd and Chestnut Streets converted into 20,000 square feet of retail space and 100,000 square feet of office space. A year later Brandywine Realty Trust announced plans for Cira Centre, a 29-story, 437-foot skyscraper with 731,852 square feet of floor space. Soon techies were playing Tetris on the side of the building and it was featured in the Philly classic Rocky Balboa. (Every Rocky movie is a classic in Philly. Don’t come at me.)
Cira Centre was a major sign that the Philadelphia skyline was changing—and office rents across the Schuylkill River began demanding more money than those in “traditional” Center City. Over the years, University City continued its rise with Penn and Drexel expanding, and activity seemingly everywhere. By 2016, the FMC Tower was completed. It’s a 49-story, 861,000-square-foot mixed-use tower with 622,000 square feet of office space, 268 residential units and suites, and 10,000 square feet of retail space. It’s the second-youngest skyscraper in town (The newest and tallest is the Comcast Technology Center which opened this year). If there was any doubt that Philly’s building boom had headed west, the FMC Tower put that to rest in a powerful way.
I’d never been inside the FMC Tower and I wanted to see if new Philadelphia could compete with old Philadelphia. I met up with H. Jeffrey DeVuono, executive vice president and senior managing director for Pennsylvania at Brandywine Realty Trust. He took me first to the chic, modern lounge on the 28th floor, featuring a gym, 72-foot swimming pool and sky deck, all have incredible views of the city.
As I walked through the building, I realized that office amenities have forever changed. Nice-to-haves (like a gym) and never-gonna-happens (like a pool and park that overlook the city) have become major tools to recruit talented employees.
“Physical space is being recognized by HR departments and CEOs as part of recruitment and retention. Office space isn’t a commodity anymore or a cost of running your business. It’s an investment in your business,” said DeVuono. “If you get better people, they’re energized, spend more time there, communicate better, and come up with better ideas.”
Walking through the workspaces, it’s impossible not to notice the natural light, tall ceilings, and inviting mix of open spaces, desk clusters, private offices, and conference rooms. It seems to jive with expert opinion that a healthy mix of workspaces promotes collaboration while allowing people to do heads-down focus work without interruption. DeVuono even added that there’s nearly 100 percent fresh air circulating throughout the building and pointed out that there are no columns or other dead space that you pay for but can’t actually use.
“People put much more thought into workspaces today,” said DeVuono. “Ergonomics is something people started talking about in the 80s and 90s but they weren’t really talking about sunlight, fresh air, ceiling height, how offices were laid out, and the need for breakout spaces.”
Now that employers are linking workspaces to worker happiness and productivity, it’s led to a sea change not just in how spaces are designed but how employers manage talent.
As I rode home, I couldn’t help but wonder how buildings like FMC Tower are forever changing what it means to go to work. Are gyms, pools and killer views simply going to be the norm? Is that what it takes to attract the best and brightest? Perhaps.
“You almost feel like the employee is interviewing the employer,” said DeVuono. “So the employer is now taking the position of interviewing for these employees, so what’s the best face I can put on in my presentation and physical space is part of that.”