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Drexel, Amtrak, Brandywine weigh giant development plans

More than four times the size of Philly's tallest tower

Officials at Drexel University, Amtrak, Brandywine Realty Trust and other city and West Philly institutions have been sitting down with design consultants in recent days to review development proposals to build over the tracks at 30th Street Station and link the grandiose proposed Drexel Innovation Neighborhood and its high-rise, Rockefeller Center-like  "Superblock" at 33rd and Market -- whose 6.5 milllion sq ft, by itself, would be more than four times larger than the proposed new Comcast office tower -- and other new Drexel-area construction to Center City, highways, the airport, Penn, and, you know, the rest of the world.

"We are in the process of determining and selecting a winning bid. My understanding is we should have that process wrapped up in the next several weeks," Amtrak spokesman Craig Schulz told me. Amtrak and the other big neighborhood and public institutions asked for developer proposals last fall.

Drexel President John Fry hopes to boost the university's enrollment by nearly one-third in the next seven years, to 34,000, and invite both corporate employers and emerging firms to share the campus. Other private area colleges like St. Joseph's and Villanova are also trying to expand under threat of the declining college-age population in Pennsylvania, whose economy is growing more slowly than the rest of the U.S. Drexel's proposals are extra ambitious.

Brandywine has a big stake: The Radnor-based firm controls five of the 10 largest Center City buildings and is the main class-A office landlord in West Philadelphia, with its current and proposed Cira towers, including the 47-story FMC building scheduled to begin work this year. Brandywine also plans to start work on a "retail-office-residential tower" in a joint venture at 1919 Market St., boss Jerry Sweeney told investors in his quarterly conference call earlier this month.

Retail will likely be an important part of the expanded Drexel neighborhood, says Michael Salove, founder of retail property broker MSC, which worked on the neighboring University of Pennsylvania's past master plan.

"This is Step One of a very long process," said broker CBRE's Brandon Famous. He hopes Drexel will create "the fifth square of Philadelphia," joining Rittenhouse and the other historic parkland hubs in Center City.