Drexel bounds closer to buying UCHS

Posted: June 13, 2014

DREXEL UNIVERSITY is now poised to purchase the old University City High School property in West Philly, following an amendment to a zoning bill that was adopted in City Council yesterday.

Pressures from the cash-strapped school district and its immediate need to pay its bills before the fiscal year's end pushed Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell and her team to negotiate with neighborhood community groups who had expressed concerns over Drexel's proposal. A deal was struck in the hallway outside chambers just minutes before the zoning bill went before Council for approval, clearing the way for the university to purchase the 14-acre parcel from the school district for $25 million.

"You can't change zoning for 14 acres - zoning that could last for 15 years or more, maybe longer than my lifetime - without being very, very careful about what you do," Blackwell said. "So we're very, very grateful. We established community agreements, so the community is involved, moving forward."

In committee hearings on the matter last week, Blackwell had criticized the developers for not adequately communicating with neighborhood community groups in the area. Mainly, her constituents expressed concerns over what would become of the site. The legislation allows for redevelopment from residential, multifamily zoning to commercial, mixed-use.

Mike Jones, president of the Powelton Village Civic Association, said his members were worried about building heights and above-ground parking facilities.

"We didn't get everything we wanted, and that's pretty typical, but I think we got a good deal. One of the critical things for us in this agreement is that the groups in the area have a voice in the master planning process," he said.

Drexel, along with the developer, Wexford Science and Technology, envision the old high school with office, residential and retail spaces, 2.7 million square feet of new construction at a cost of nearly $1 billion. The proposal also calls for a five-year reserved spot for the possibility of constructing another public school.

"The next steps after we get through the transaction and the final zoning would be to initiate the agreed-upon community outreach process and talk about what might go there," said Peter Kelsen, an attorney representing Drexel in zoning matters.

The deal is expected to close on Monday, two days before Council's last session before summer break.

Also yesterday, Councilman David Oh proposed an amendment to the city's operating budget for Fiscal Year 2015 that identifies $74 million in cushion money that Oh says can go to the school district.

Oh says this "one-time infusion" of funds could be a fall-back provision if the $2-per-pack cigarette tax is not passed in Harrisburg.

Councilman Bill Greenlee made a motion to table the amendment, which was supported by all other members of council. The city's FY15 operating budget now goes before council for a final vote next week.

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