Changing Skyline: Drexel's big plans

The university is intent on a huge expansion east that would nevertheless concentrate growth in a compact core - minimizing sprawl into nearby neighborhoods.

Posted: September 08, 2012

When it comes to neighborhood relations, big urban universities often behave like small kingdoms. They rule over the surrounding lands with an iron hand, exercising almost total control over what gets built.

As one of Philadelphia's Big Three, Drexel University has frequently played the role of absolute monarch. Collaboration was a foreign idea. The results, as you might expect from any one-party state, were not always the best.

But the world changes, and occasionally so do large institutions. When Drexel began working on a new master plan in the spring of 2011, it sensed that the time had come for a more benevolent, inclusive approach. Before convening the usual insider group to define its goals, Drexel first set up a Facebook page and a blog ( drexelmasterplan.wordpress.com/) to crowd-source ideas from students, faculty, and neighborhood residents. It organized brainstorming workshops and town-hall-style meetings, ultimately getting more than a thousand people to offer their two cents about how the West Philadelphia campus should be reorganized.

The results are in, and the master plan is unlike anything Drexel has produced before. While most universities today tend to be in perpetual expansion mode, Drexel's new master plan calls for consolidating its undergraduate footprint into a tighter core, in an effort to end its destructive sprawl into the Powelton Village and University City neighborhoods. The goal is to concentrate student destinations so that no campus building is more than a five-minute walk from the academic spine on Market Street.

That doesn't mean that the university is opting out of the space race or abandoning its ambition to keep with its academic peers. Far from it. Drexel, which began flexing its dormant muscle under its late president Constantine Papadakis, plans a massive expansion over the next 30 years, adding six to 10 million square feet of space - the equivalent of six to 10 Comcast towers. For the record, that's twice as much space as New York University - the very model of urban academic behemoth - intends to build in the same time.

While NYU has been pummeled for trying to insert so much new construction into its low-rise Greenwich Village neighborhood, Drexel, by contrast, has heard few complaints. Robert Francis, the university vice president for planning, is convinced that Drexel would never have gotten the support for its building spree if the master plan had been produced in the usual top-down way. Along with the online outreach, it invited two officers from the Powelton Village Civic Association to serve on the plan's steering committee.

Francis says the "pathbreaking" gesture profoundly shaped the plan and made it sensitive to neighborhood concerns. For example, to discourage developers from carving up Powelton's elegant Victorian houses into student rentals, Drexel will provide on-campus housing for all freshmen and sophomores. Mike Jones, the civic association president, believes the commitment could make Powelton a viable neighborhood again for homeowners, by tipping the market toward single-family housing.

Under the plan, which was overseen by Boston consultant Goody Clancy, Drexel's new growth will be mostly upward and eastward, especially around the transit hub of 30th Street Station, where there are large tracts of vacant land.

Drexel envisions a cluster of tall towers there that will house its expanding graduate programs, as well as several hundred market-rate apartments. In preparation, the university has scooped up several key properties, including the Five Star parking lot and the defunct Bulletin newspaper building at 30th and Market Streets. It also owns land along the high ridge overlooking Amtrak's rail yard, which offers spectacular views of Center City's skyline.

The impact of that eastward expansion will be felt far beyond Drexel's campus. The apartment towers, located only a block west of the Schuylkill, will begin to fill in the empty zone between Center City and West Philadelphia. Just two or three apartment buildings would create a mini neighborhood, but the plan estimates the population could grow to more than 5,000. Once established, the residential beachhead could eventually grow, and help Philadelphia fulfill its old dream of building a platform over Amtrak's rail yards to support new towers.

If this eastward strategy sounds similar to the one adopted by the University of Pennsylvania a decade ago, it's no accident. That expansion was plotted by a Penn vice president, John A. Fry, who is now Drexel's president.

Drexel's master plan borrows heavily from the ideas Fry pioneered at Penn, but that's OK. The proposals to reurbanize Penn's campus, by knitting it back into the life of the city, is now state-of-the-art thinking for urban schools.

Drexel has already made big strides on that front. All over campus, it has been busting up its many blank-walled buildings from the '60s and '70s. In their place, it has inserted more interactive glass facades, with space for restaurants, shops and, in one case on Market Street, a full-service recreation center. "Every blank wall at Drexel should have something active in front of it," says David Dixon, a Goody Clancy planner.

Penn found itself in a similar situation in the late '90s. After years of trying to create a cloistered campus within the city, it had become a fortified island, surrounded by decaying and dangerous streets. Reversing course, Penn began to engage the neighborhood socially and reorient itself physically toward Walnut Street.

Drexel plans to do much the same on its part of Chestnut Street, between 30th and 36th Streets. It envisions the stretch as the university's Main Street, with shops and housing. The first project, a privately built student dorm called Chestnut Square, is rising between 32d and 33d Streets. Designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects, the residence is being slipped onto the narrow grassy lawn in front of the Mandell Theater and former bookstore. With 10 storefronts at ground level, and a new theater entrance, it should bring activity to the block around the clock.

The dorm is likely to serve as a model for future development. Its design allows Drexel to give a dull old building an instant makeover by wrapping it with a new facade. It's also significant that the project is being financed and built by a developer, who was given a long-term lease on the land. Increasingly, schools like Drexel want private companies to build and manage new dorms so they can concentrate on funding academic projects.

Market Street has always been Drexel's academic spine, but the master plan promises to make future classroom buildings do more multitasking, especially on the ground floor. One of the plan's basic tenets is that no building should ever be devoted to just one purpose.

Several of these mixed-use academic projects are already in the works. The steel outlines of Drexel's new business school, designed by Stern and Philadelphia's Voith & Mactavish, are visible at 32d Street. One of its most exciting new projects will debut this fall when Drexel's media, fashion, and design departments move into Robert Venturi's famous "decorated shed" on 34th Street, which has been transformed by MS&R to edgy studios.

As Drexel's academic ambitions have grown, so have its architectural ones. In the past, the university has been too quick to plop down trophy buildings by big-name architects, with little thought as to how the additions gel into a cohesive, attractive campus. Trash compactors and giant air-conditioning units seem placed at random.

The university has budgeted nearly half a billion dollars for construction in the next few years, and that means Drexel is going to be erecting a lot of buildings quickly. In all the exuberance, it will be important to keep in mind one of the master plan's principles: A university isn't just a collection of buildings. It's the spaces in between.


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213, isaffron@phillynews.com or on Twitter @ingasaffron.

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