In the wake of revelations that its massive Schuylkill Yards development around 30th Street Station might be rising in the midst of extensive historic burial grounds, Brandywine Realty Trust called an informal meeting last week to discuss what the situation might portend for the project.
Brandywine and its partner, Drexel University, owner of much of the land that will be used for the $3.5 billion development, learned in March that the site sits atop two burial grounds begun by Quakers around the time of the city’s founding in 1682.
Known as the Upper and Lower Burial Grounds, the cemeteries became heavily used potter’s fields through much of the 18th and 19th centuries, until the land was acquired by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1850.
After publication in The Inquirer this month of an account of the potential for disruption of historic gravesites, Brandywine contacted members of the city’s design, historic preservation, and archaeological communities, as well as state officials and representatives of the Society of Friends to discuss how best to proceed.
At a private meeting Thursday in the Brandywine offices on the 17th floor of the Cira South building south of the station, a historical report on the site was presented to attendees by George Thomas, a well-known architectural historian. Gerard H. Sweeney, Brandywine president, chief executive, and trustee was present, according to several attendees.
Thomas said that, given the extensive building and railroad construction in the area, it was unlikely any human remains survive on the site.
“It can be safely concluded that the site has been scraped, graded, excavated, and otherwise completely altered so that the likelihood of human remains on the proposed building sites has been much reduced,” he said in the executive summary of his report, which Brandywine released to The Inquirer.
He added that geotechnical studies confirmed that conclusion. In any event, the Brandywine project, he wrote, will have no impact on the Upper Burial Ground and should have no impact on the Lower Burial Ground.
The two burial grounds appear on maps posted online by the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum, a service organization. Archaeologists have already conceded that the maps are tentative and that the extent of both burial grounds could be much greater — and possibly much less — than shown.
The Upper Burial Ground, according to the maps, extends north of 30th Street Station roughly from Arch Street to Race Street. The Lower Burial Ground is shown to run west from the river to beyond 31st Street, between what is now JFK Boulevard and Arch Street.
Brandywine officials declined to discuss the specifics of the meeting or to release the full Thomas report. They did, however, issue a statement lauding the “constructive dialog” with participants.
“As a result, we are proceeding with exploring our options for additional study and coordination with the appropriate parties,” the statement said. "We are committed to managing this process respectfully, documenting our findings in detail, and offering full transparency to the public.”
Participants in the meeting, who asked for anonymity because the meeting was private at the developer’s insistence, said that Thomas presented extensive research but that concrete information about the burial grounds was difficult to come by.
Several participants said they pointed out at the meeting that evidence of past disturbance to gravesites was somewhat beside the point.
For one thing, several people said, human remains, which have appeared repeatedly during construction in the area over the decades, are still human remains, even if their burial place has been disrupted.
And if anything, disruption of graves and quick reburial off to the side — a practice documented in newspaper reports — increases the possibility that remains have been scattered and reburied over a broader area than originally thought.
Archaeologists have maintained there is no way to know what lies beneath the surface without archaeological investigation on the ground. In this case, they have said that the boundaries of the cemeteries were not fixed and that the burials were unregulated for many decades during heavy use, adding to the uncertainties.
In a highly publicized case in 2017, the builder of an apartment complex on Arch Street in Old City — who did no archaeological work in advance of construction — was confronted with hundreds of graves belonging to the old First Baptist Church burial ground that supposedly had been removed in the middle of the 19th century.
Participants at the Brandywine meeting said that the developer said an archaeological investigation in advance of construction had not been ruled out. Two archaeological firms have submitted proposals for such work. No one has been hired.
Brandywine also said at the meeting that it would work up a plan for addressing the discovery of human remains should that happen.
One participant said development officials were told the company would be legally required to petition Orphans’ Court if human remains were found, because the court has jurisdiction over abandoned graveyards.