Class of ’02 | Natalie Shieh (née Hsueh) EAS’02 LPS’08 GCP’09 chuckles as she recalls her first trip to Philadelphia as a high-school student from northern New Jersey. She was on a scouting visit to Penn, and after checking out a few maps, she decided that it made the most sense to take SEPTA to Center City’s Suburban Station. “That’s where everything seemed to be located,” she says. “Of course, I soon realized that getting off at 30th Street Station would have gotten me much closer to Penn, but it just didn’t look like it was at the center of things.”
Seventeen years and three Penn degrees later, now principal officer for Amtrak’s 30th Street District Plan, Shieh is intent on implementing changes that ensure there’s a lot more there there. True, much has changed on the west bank of the Schuylkill River since Shieh first came to Penn. But much more is in store.
Amtrak’s ambitions, which stem from a need to improve its stations and rails in order to more efficiently handle increased ridership along the major stops of the Northeast corridor, bring with them many added benefits.
“In Philadelphia, we’re looking to create an adaptable and implementable master plan that builds community, connectivity, and identity,” says Shieh. “Our goal is a memorable and high-quality destination with a real sense of place that leverages the real-estate potential around us.” It’s already been done elsewhere. A massive redevelopment effort was just completed at Denver’s Union Station, and in Chicago construction is slated to begin this year based on a master plan that’s been in the works since 2010.
In Philadelphia, Amtrak has partnered with three key landowners in its immediate vicinity—Brandywine Realty Trust, Drexel University, and SEPTA—and invited a host of other interested neighbors, including Penn, to provide guidance during the two-year drafting of the master plan.
“Tackling the infrastructure around 30th Street Station has been talked about before, many times,” Shieh acknowledges. “But there’s never been this kind of a partnership between so many organizations with so much planning experience and such a strong level of commitment.”
The plan will identify development opportunities within and around the station in an attempt to build “Philadelphia’s next great neighborhood,” according to Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which is writing it in association with Parsons Brickerhoff, HR&A Advisors, and Philly-based landscape architects OLIN. While the study will focus on the immediate 175 acres owned by the primary four organizations, it covers about 700 acres in total, extending south to Penn Park, east to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and west toward Mantua. Everyone from the city’s planning department to the Central Philadelphia Development Corporation has weighed in with ideas of what might work, particularly when it comes to the ever-elusive link between the eastern fringes of University City and the western edge of Center City.
“Personally, I’d like to see us really evaluate how we can de-emphasize the infrastructure—the rail yards, the highways—and give the land back to people,” says the 34-year-old Shieh. “Everything is up for discussion, from the certainty of building on the parking lots to the possibility of selling the air rights over the rail yards.”
The Amtrak job represents the latest in a series of positions Shieh has held that aim to re-shape the city.
“Day to day, my job is about communications, managing agendas, and attending to the great variety of stakeholders,” she says. “It’s a different topic, but very similar to what I did for the Zoning Code Commission.” As project manager for that effort—which rewrote and reformed the city’s outdated rules governing land use and building forms—and as deputy chief of staff for the deputy mayor for economic development, Shieh found herself moving more squarely into urban planning, which proved to be the best fit for her talents.
She entered Penn to study systems engineering, whose emphasis on managing complex processes has “wound up helping me in all of my jobs.” Upon graduation, Shieh found herself working on brownfields for an environmental consulting firm, which “opened my eyes to the fact that cities weren’t just about vibrant downtowns,” she says. “There were also urban revitalization projects that could bring other communities back to life.”
After returning to Penn and earning a master’s in urban environmental studies, she realized her heart was in urban planning and enrolled in Penn’s city and regional-planning program.
Now Shieh is relishing her work on a project that will improve a “critical gateway and crucial link between University City and Center City”—and do so in a way that “mirrors and builds on the traditions of other great Philadelphia neighborhoods.
“The connection between both sides should be seamless,” she adds. “They should feel like part of the same city.”