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Drexel outlines ambitious plans to build business-residential enclave

Drexel University president John Fry wanted his campus to expand into an adjacent neighborhood of innovative businesses, bustling retail, manicured parks, and soaring residential towers.

Artist’s rendering of the future view from 30th Street looking at the planned Drexel Square parks.
Artist’s rendering of the future view from 30th Street looking at the planned Drexel Square parks.Read moreSHoP Architects PC / West 8

Drexel University president John Fry wanted his campus to expand into an adjacent neighborhood of innovative businesses, bustling retail, manicured parks, and soaring residential towers.

So he decided to build one.

The 125-year-old school is teaming with developer Brandywine Realty Trust to transform an expanse of parking lots and industrial buildings between its campus and 30th Street Station into a dense new addition to Philadelphia's University City district of educational, medical, and research institutions.

The expansion - to be called Schuylkill Yards - is meant to accommodate a student body that has grown from fewer than 7,000 in the mid-1990s to about 26,000 today, while attracting tech firms, biomed labs, and forward-thinking start-ups to the area, Fry said in an interview before Wednesday afternoon's announcement of the project.

"I wanted to accomplish the fact of campus development, but I wanted to do it in a broader context," he said. "We can both expand the university, as we need, but also do something way more and build - effectively - a new mixed-use neighborhood."

The decades-long project will involve the development of about eight million square feet of mixed-use real estate - equal to about 61/2 Comcast Center towers - over an area twice the size of Rittenhouse Square.

The plan takes inspiration from places such as Cambridge, Mass., and Austin, Texas, where top-flight universities have boosted regional economies - and their own prestige - by drawing companies such as Apple and Microsoft into their midst.

But in building a hoped-for economic and educational powerhouse from the ground up with a broad selection of uses beyond the obvious mix of labs and workspaces, Drexel is trying something new, said Jennifer S. Vey, an urban-planning expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"They're being intentional from the get-go," Vey said. "They're looking at the assets of the broader area and trying to be a little more strategic ahead of time about the mix of uses that they want to create that kind of dynamic space."

Drexel and Brandywine announced their plans under blue-tinted spotlights in a massive temporary tent-like pavilion erected on a parking lot outside 30th Street Station that is the future site of Schuylkill Yards' 1.3-acre park.

State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.), who represents the neighborhood, and other local officials praised the economic opportunities they said the $3.5 billion project would bring to nearby Mantua and Powelton Village.

"We're always striving for game-changing projects, game-changing programs we can really sink our teeth into," Hughes said. "This project, Schuylkill Yards, is a game-changer."

The development is the latest - and perhaps most prominent - major project in a burst of real estate activity in and around University City.

The University City Science Center, a business incubator and research hub, and developer Wexford Science & Technology are building most of their uCity Square project on a 10-acre parcel just west of Drexel's campus.

The University of Pennsylvania, meanwhile, is redeveloping a former industrial site across the Schuylkill south of its campus into a complex of offices, labs, and studios called Pennovation Works.

Brandywine Realty Trust chief executive Jerry Sweeney said he does not see the other projects as competition, since they will cumulatively draw more businesses to Philadelphia for all to share.

"If we're doing nothing but worrying about poaching each other's tenants, we're not effectively growing," he said.

Planners will aim to have offices make up about 55 percent of the project's new real estate, with the rest going to housing, hotels, shops, labs and other uses.

That's a wise use of space for University City, which has some of Philadelphia's highest office rents, said Richard Anderson, a Mizuho Securities USA analyst covering Brandywine and other developers.

Demand will be sustained by research-based companies seeking proximity to University City's educational and medical centers, as well as businesses such as law firms demanding easy access to New York and Washington via 30th Street Station, Anderson said.

"There are opportunities there for a very long time to come," he said.

Brandywine Realty Trust has already made a big mark on the area with projects including the Cira Centre office tower, redevelopment of the former 30th Street Main Post Office building, and the FMC Tower, which is currently being built.

The Radnor-based company will oversee a team for Schuylkill Yards that includes residential developer Gotham Organization Inc. of New York and life-sciences specialists Longfellow Real Estate Partners of Boston. It will be the first project in Philadelphia for both firms.

New York's SHoP Architects will develop the area's master plan and architectural standards, while the Dutch firm West 8 designs its streets and open spaces.

Brandywine's deal with Drexel gives the developer a long-term lease for the property, and grants the university first dibs on space in Schuylkill Yards' new and redeveloped buildings - along with favorable leasing terms - for classrooms, offices and labs.

Other financial terms of the partnership were not disclosed. The development will generate more than 10,000 construction jobs and about 15,000 permanent jobs, Sweeney said.

The first step will be to seek a zoning overlay to ease later planning approvals, Sweeney said. The first building phase is expected to take 15 to 20 years and will concentrate on a 10-acre Drexel-owned site bounded by 30th, Market and 32nd Streets and the rail yards north of Drexel's campus.

The partners aim to break ground before the end of this year on the park outside 30th Street Station. Next will come renovation of the 1950s Bulletin newspaper building just to the west, since redubbed One Drexel Plaza, with a new sieve-like facade.

Work on the first new construction project, a tower of labs and offices at the northeast corner of 31st Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard, could start by early 2018. Also anticipated is a mixed-use skyscraper west of the former newspaper building, which Sweeney said could rise as high as 950 feet, towering over the 730-foot tall FMC Tower.

In later decades, development will shift to a four-acre area consisting of both Drexel- and Brandywine-owned property, bounded by Market, 30th, Chestnut and 31st Streets.

Drexel and Brandywine also are working with Amtrak and others on a $5.25 million planning study to partially cap 30th Street Station's 175-acre rail yard to the north. The street grid established by Schuylkill Yards could continue over the tracks, Sweeney said.

"University City is a hundred-year project" that began with construction of the post office building and train station in the 1930s, he said. "The plan was to make this a vibrant part of the city and to connect the city. We're just fulfilling that vision."