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Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects help shape vision for York’s future with design for John McElligott’s Innovation District

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Inspiration, not to mention opportunity, can come knocking in the strangest places.

And sometimes, pulling off big ideas involves the collaboration of a community. It’s why Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects is part of a project to reshape industry in York.

For John McElligott, founder of York Exponential, it was staring at a mural in the parking lot of the McDonald’s in downtown York that sparked those early moments of inspiration.

The painting depicted factory workers standing united with smokestacks in the background. Overhead, were words “The York Plan.”

McElligott never heard of the York Plan before, but he was intrigued. So, he started researching.

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He found that in the spring of 1940, just before the U.S. entered World War II, the heads of four manufacturing plants in York collaborated on a plan that would mobilize local industry to contribute to the war they knew was coming, despite the fact that nobody wanted to be a part of it. The so-called York Plan quickly became the model adopted by the entire country for inventorying machinery and manpower and bringing them together to support the war effort.

“Most people don’t know this, but York, Pa., saved the world 75 years ago,” McElligott says.

After learning the history of York’s contributions to World War II, McElligott was inspired to design a new plan: York Plan 2.0. His plan would use the same principles those business leaders had used generations ago to transform York into an industrial powerhouse – except this time, instead of building tanks, they’d build robots.

McElligott’s company, York Exponential, is involved with building collaborative robots. He’s also launching The Fortress, a robotics programming and coding boot camp in the city. His next goal: the creation of an Innovation District to make sure York can lead the same way it did during World War II.

He found partners in Joe Wagman, chairman of Wagman Co. and developer Hugh Simpson. They found a site for his project: A parcel of land in the city’s Northwest Triangle. Next, they needed someone who could develop a design bold enough for their big vision.

For that, the three turned to Frank Dittenhafer at Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects – someone they enjoyed working with and who was talented and trustworthy.

Dittenhafer was more than happy to take on the challenge.

Innovative Design in the Northwest Triangle

While the site itself is small – approximately 2 acres, Dittenhafer says – the developers envisioned the Innovation District encompassing many uses.

There would be space for alternative manufacturing and robotics research. Spaces for laboratories, prototyping, offices and meetings. Spaces for co-working, startups and community gathering. It could house business accelerators and incubators, as well as retail and micro-housing for students and researchers. Anything that might serve to fuel York’s ongoing transformation to an innovation hub.

The size of the tract wasn’t the only challenge facing the Murphy & Dittenhafer team as they began the design process. There was the site’s odd, trapezoidal shape; the city’s plans to extend Pershing Street to North Street, which effectively bisects the site; the rail line on the southern edge of the tract; and the extension of the rail-trail following the creek and the Codorus itself.

McElligott and his team told Dittenhafer and his M&D colleagues Blake Gifford and Todd Grove – that the building should not be like anything else in the city.

“We embraced the reality of the site parameters – what were previously limitations to other people – and came up with a very creative, dynamic, flexible approach to building,” Dittenhafer says.

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The resulting design is a five-phase project that, when fully built out, includes 240,000 gross square feet spread across a dynamic, dense array of pieces and parts – some three stories, some four or five, one piece that includes temporary housing, and under-ground parking.

In keeping with the theme of innovation and transformation, the proposal is sustainably designed– including green roofs, living walls and plenty of natural light. The buildings are intentionally transparent as to erase boundaries and promote a sharing of ideas.

“We’re showing innovation and freedom - and coloring outside the lines,” Dittenhafer says. “It’s all about change and challenge, and an Architecture of Disruption.”

And because M&D is involved with designing the abutting parcel, which will feature 130 units of housing, there will be synergy across plans for the Northwest Triangle.

“The building does so many incredible and amazing things with that tract,” McElligott says.

Innovative Vision attracts Steve Case and The Rise of the Rest Tour

With the design in hand, the Innovation District developers are courting several large companies to garner interest in the space. Phase One is already filled.

McElligott’s hoping the attention of another innovator – Steve Case of AOL fame – will offer some momentum to the project. McElligott met the entrepreneur after presenting at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. Thanks, in part, to that meeting, Case will be visiting the region in October as part of his Rise of the Rest Tour, a nationwide effort to support entrepreneurs in startup ecosystems outside of places like Silicon Valley or New York City.

The team behind the Innovations District believes York is exactly the type of place someone like Case is looking for with its strong manufacturing base and robust supply chain. What’s more, they believe Case will provide a much-needed sense of urgency about the opportunities available to York right now as far as investing in things like robotics.

“We’ve been hearing pretty consistently that, as robotics continue to develop, demand is going up, but the supply is low,” McElligott says.

Case’s upcoming visit paired with the plans for the Innovation District and development in the Northwest Triangle has excited others in York.

Kevin Schreiber, president and CEO of the York County Economic Alliance, says that developing this area of the city has been on their radar for more than 10 years. He sees the Innovation District as a natural evolution for York’s history in advanced manufacturing.

“We really are at the point in this community where momentum is taking over,” he says. Case’s visit is an awesome opportunity, he adds.

“We should be incredibly proud. There’s going to be a lot of eyes looking at us.”

The team at Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects is thrilled to play a role in shaping York’s future and see the project as directly in line with the vision of a legendary businessman like Case.

“It’s fantastic,” Dittenhafer says. “It’s perfectly aligned with what this project is proposing. The stars have indeed aligned.”

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