Inquirer Editorial: Drexel's good neighbor policy

Posted: November 19, 2012

How cool would it be if University City and Center City were connected by a walkable development bridging the two? Even better, build it over the hideous Penn Coach Yards, where trains are stored and maintained, outside 30th Street Station.

This is the vision of Drexel University President John A. Fry, who is embarking on a two-year feasibility study for the project along with Amtrak and SEPTA, which own parts of the land.

If deemed possible, the project would take years to develop as well as finance. But the elegant solution of expanding the university and adding commercial development is irresistible.

It makes more sense than previous plans for the train yards, including a baseball stadium, convention center, amusement park, or just offices and housing. Those developments were not cut from the fabric of the neighborhood, so they were in danger of being isolated.

Connectivity is key, and Fry, who, while at the University of Pennsylvania, worked on its laudable reach into the community, gets that.

Philadelphia's universities and hospitals, which have become major city employers, serve as economic engines pushing the city into a more prosperous future. They have attracted health- and research-based businesses while helping their neighborhoods evolve into centers of commerce and community engagement.

In the 1990s, Penn worked hard to integrate the university with the surrounding neighborhood, stimulating investments in shops, restaurants, and a theater.

Temple University's work in North Philadelphia has brought a long-needed supermarket, shopping strips, and entertainment. There have been growing pains, many due to a jump in off-campus student housing. But Temple is working with the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, before possibly leaping over the train yards, Drexel hopes to partner with an international university and develop an "innovation neighborhood" in the area around the station.

The development would include five million square feet of commercial office space, research laboratories, student housing, and a hotel. Drexel already is helping the neighborhood with a study to expand the Samuel Powel Elementary School and develop a community center.

Philadelphia is known as a birthplace of great ideas, and Drexel is following in that tradition. Not only is it seeding improvements in its immediate area by making it more livable and useful to students and residents, but its plans can benefit the whole city.

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