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Drexel's Fry presses on with development plans

Drexel President John A. Fry laid out the university's development plans at a breakfast meeting held by the Center City District Tuesday morning.

It took more than two decades for Drexel University to secure the Firestone property at 32nd and Market streets - now considered vital to the university's plans for an innovation district.

But persistence paid off. Under the direction of President John A. Fry, the university recently closed the deal for about $9 million.

At a meeting of the Central Philadelphia Development Corporation  on Tuesday morning, Fry laid out his ambitious plans for development both on Drexel's campus, as well as the possibility of building over and developing part of the Schuylkill Rail Yards. Fry announced in November that Drexel was embarking on a university-funded million-dollar-plus feasibility study with Amtrak and SEPTA to determine options for the rail yards.

Such plans likely will take the same kind of persistence as it took to acquire the Firestone property.

The rail yards have long been ogled by visionaries for their expansive prospects yet largely untouched because of the potential infrastructure problems they pose.

Fry believes the project could connect 30th Street Station and its West Philadelphia community to the Art Museum and Center City via an elevated platform built atop the rail yards. The project could yield 50-plus acres of new commercial/retail and academic development over the rail yards.

"It's a bold vision. You have to put a stake in the ground, and you have to try for something like that," said Jeanne R. Nevelos, vice president of business development for Greater Select Philadelphia. "Other cities and other places in the country do things like that. There's no reason in the world why we can't do that. We have all the raw assets."

Nevelos attended the breakfast meeting at the Four Seasons.

Mark A. Duffy, senior vice president of real estate finance for FirsTrust, agreed. He acknowledged that the cost will be great for such a complex project, "but it could be the future of center city at the same time."

Fry last week testified before the House Transportation Committee about his ideas for the rail yards and the idea of major development around transportation hubs.

"This is many, many years of work to get to the point where we feel we will have something to show for it," Fry said. "But you have to lay the groundwork for these things."

Fry also talked about the university's plans for an innovation neighborhood abutting 30th Street Station and his hopes for a variety of collaborative projects there, including potentially luring and partnering with an international university, similar to the plans between Cornell University and Israel's Technion for New York City.

The innovation neighborhood is expected to include five million square feet of commercial office space, research laboratories, student housing, and a hotel.

At the meeting, Fry said the university is negotiating with a hotel to occupy a site at 33rd and Chestnut.

"It's not as big at the Inn at Penn, but I think it's going to have the same impact as the Inn at Penn," he said.

Paul R. Levy, president and CEO of the Center City District, said Drexel proposes exciting possibilities. He noted that the city has had its success with mixed use development.

"So what the university represents is a whole new driver of possibility for us," he said.