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Brandywine chief Sweeney embraces developer-statesman role, entwining company’s fate with Philly’s | Industry Icons

In Sweeney, Philadelphia may have found someone to fill the developer-statesman niche last occupied by Willard G. Rouse III, who built skyline-defining towers in the 1980s and 1990s while collaborating on convention center and concert hall projects to advance the city's cultural and economic clout.

Brandywine Realty Trust CEO Jerry Sweeney sits for an interview in his office in the FMC Tower.
Brandywine Realty Trust CEO Jerry Sweeney sits for an interview in his office in the FMC Tower.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA

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Until about a year ago, Brandywine Realty Trust's corporate home was in a parking-lot-ringed mid-rise in Radnor.

Now the developer's offices fill two sleek floors on the upper levels of its soaring FMC Tower in University City.

The address change accompanies a sharpening focus on the city by Brandywine's president and chief executive, Gerard H. "Jerry" Sweeney, who in recent years has become one of Philadelphia's most active civic figures in addition to running its dominant owner of office space.

The row of new, mirrored-glass high-rises around 30th Street Station, including FMC Tower, is Sweeney's handiwork, and his stewardship of most of Philadelphia's "trophy" office buildings has raised the bar — and the rent — for commercial landlords citywide. That physical footprint is soon to expand radically as Brandywine embarks on the massive University City development dubbed Schuylkill Yards.

Outside the office, meanwhile, nonprofit groups led by Sweeney have helped lay miles of recreational trail along the Schuylkill and have overseen the deepening of the Delaware River to boost port employment.

"Our office buildings are only as strong and only as valuable as the economy in which they are built," he said. "We've been battling every day to sell the Philadelphia story."

In Sweeney, Philadelphia may have found someone to fill the developer-statesman niche last occupied by Willard G. Rouse III, who built skyline-defining towers in the 1980s and 1990s while collaborating on convention center and concert hall projects to advance the city's cultural and economic clout.

He's an unlikely urban booster. The 62-year-old has never lived in Philadelphia — or any big city for that matter — and only moved Brandywine downtown in mid-2017 after rotating it for decades through suburban office parks.

He lives in a house he built on a 15-acre former farm in Chester County, where he keeps three donkeys, 25 chickens, and nine goats (of the fainting and Nigerian dwarf variety) in a restored 19th-century barn. He runs a side business that manufactures taffy sold at Cracker Barrel restaurants.

In a town that celebrates brashness, Sweeney cuts a humble figure.

He wears conservatively cut dark suits and loafers with worn soles. His gray hair is cut at home by his wife, Jackie, an engineer who owns a project-management business. They have a combined six adult children.

Devoutly religious, Sweeney spends time each morning reading Scripture, which he concedes is atypical for Catholics such as himself. A favorite passage: "Before destruction the heart of man is haughty. And before honor goeth humility."

He is also a voracious reader of history, turning to works by Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jon Meacham for perspective on the current political moment. Among his idols are the mid-20th-century reformist Philadelphia Mayors Joseph S. Clark Jr. and Richardson Dilworth.

"They challenged the status quo in Philadelphia," he said, "and changed the city."

Sweeney was raised in the Delaware County suburb of Drexel Hill, where his mother and father — former Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. John J. Sweeney —  moved in 1960 after growing up in Philadelphia.

His young adulthood began inauspiciously, with his expulsion from Monsignor Bonner High School for smoking in the bathroom and paying unsanctioned visits to an adjacent all-girls Catholic school. He graduated from Upper Darby High and slogged through college at West Chester University as a self-described mediocre student.

After graduating with an economics degree and grades too poor for graduate school, he resolved not to squander any more potential and enrolled part-time at Temple University to earn a certified public accountant license, then joined a Scott Paper Co. unit building new production plants nationwide, his first exposure to property development.

His next stop was at Linpro Co., predecessor to the Berwyn-based company now known as LCOR Inc., where he went to work after returning to Philadelphia from a Scott posting in rural Maine to aid his then-wife's career prospects.

Sweeney spent 11 years climbing the ladder at Linpro, then was named chief executive of a small publicly traded unit spun off from the company in 1994.

That small entity — which at the time owned just three South Jersey mid-rises and a warehouse in Allentown — would over the years snowball into a multibillion-dollar real estate trust under the Brandywine name, most notably through its 1996 merger with a real estate affiliate of Radnor-based Safeguard Scientifics Inc. and its acquisition of Prentiss Properties Trust in 2006.

By the early 2000s, Brandywine was a dominant suburban office landlord, with properties including 401 Plymouth Road in Plymouth Meeting.

That's when Sweeney learned that Amtrak wanted to sell a parcel beside 30th Street Station and calculated that having a presence near the commuter throng that passes through the rail network's third-busiest station would boost the company's profile.

After winning Amtrak's nod to develop the site, Sweeney decided to eschew Brandywine's prosaic office-park approach for its first urban tower project, instead wagering on an expensive, glass-sheathed design by the architect Cesar Pelli that came to be known as Cira Centre.

"My perspective was, if we're pioneering geographically, then let's really pioneer architecturally," Sweeney said.

Spurred by the success of Cira, which was aided by the Keystone Opportunity Zone tax advantages he successfully lobbied for at the site, Sweeney began snapping up office buildings across the Schuylkill in Center City, playing an ever-bigger role in the city's business and civic life.

"I saw him as an ambitious, enthusiastic individual who would stop and listen to people when they try to give him advice," said Walter D'Alessio, a real estate consultant and former Philadelphia redevelopment official who joined Brandywine's board of directors and helped Sweeney navigate through his initial years in the city.

Brandywine's acquisitions would come to include the skyscrapers now known as One, Two and Three Logan and the two Commerce Square towers. It has joint-ventured on new apartments and student housing, in addition to its commercial buildings such as FMC Tower, which command some of the city's highest office rents.

Sweeney's biggest gambit yet, though, is the sprawling district of labs, offices, residences and shopping streets known as Schuylkill Yards, on which work has only just begun. It would cover what's now a 14-acre assemblage of parking lots and industrial buildings between the Drexel University campus and 30th Street Station.

"We can actually redefine a part of a city," he said. "Actually create a brand-new neighborhood."

In addition to its large remaining property portfolio in affluent Philadelphia suburbs, Brandywine has a big presence in Austin, Texas, and owns buildings in metropolitan Washington.

But its business is increasingly dependent on central Philadelphia: in a first for the company, holdings in Center City and University City accounted for more than half of its net operating income in its most recently filed quarterly earnings documents.

With Brandywine's fate so intertwined with Philadelphia's, Sweeney has been pulling every lever he can to help steer the city toward economic growth.

As founder of the Schuylkill River Development Corp., he's worked to make Center City's western waterfront more inviting to cyclists and pedestrians; as chairman of the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, he's helped spearhead the deepening of the Delaware River in hopes of transforming the city into a regional shipping hub.

He also toiled on a since-lapsed proposal to raise property taxes and lower payroll taxes — which would have had to be enacted through state legislation — in partnership with Paul Levy, president of the Center City District.

While this would have meant a property tax hike for Brandywine and other commercial landlords, Sweeney wagered that the lower taxes would have drawn more companies into Philadelphia, resulting in demand for office space that would more than offset the property tax hike.

"One could say it's enlightened self-interest," Levy said. "But there are a lot of developers out there who have self-interest without the word enlightened."