July 29, 2011 by David Stephenson
The Philadelphia City Planning Commission approved Drexel University plans for three residence halls and retail space along the 3200 block of Chestnut Street the week of July 18.
According to plans submitted to the planning commission and the Drexel Campus Master Plan, the construction of the residence halls and retail space will take place in the small strip of land between the locations of the Creese Student Center and MacAlister Hall and Chestnut Street. Creese and MacAlister are set back 53 feet from the street, and this space, which is currently occupied by landscaping, bicycle racks and outdoor seating for the Creese Cafe, will be filled as the planned buildings will extend to the Chestnut Street sidewalk.
The Commission approved an amendment to the University’s Institutional Development District Plan during its meeting in a move that will add a planned 863 beds for students to the University City campus. Two 8-story buildings are planned in the spaces in front of MacAlister and Creese, with entrances fronting on Chestnut Street. A third 19-story tower will be built along 32nd Street.
“Most of the units look like quads, and they’re still designing the floor plans for exactly how the retail space will be set up so the quad units may change,” Commission IDD supervisor Martin Gregorski told the commission.
The plans submitted to the commission also include 36,000 square feet of street level retail and office space and a 101,500 square foot parking garage that will be able to hold 267 vehicles. The garage would be built behind Creese, where loading facilities are today, with entrances and exits on 32nd Street, Gregorski told the commission.
The only question commissioners asked of the plan was if current buildings would be affected, to which Gregorski said, “This is a reuse of the existing block basically, and they’re building the buildings around it.”
The plan calls for none of the existing buildings in the block, which includes not only MacAlister and Creese but also the Mandell Theater and the Handschumacher Dining Center, to be removed, despite the expansion.
No audience members submitted questions before the commission voted unanimously to approve the project.
The plan submitted to the committee had no time frame for completion but the Philadelphia Real Estate Blog CityBizList posted that the project was scheduled for completion in August 2013 in a July 27 post.
CityBizList also reported that Austin-based American Campus Communities, Inc. was in predevelopment negotiations for what they called a $90 million project, although these numbers were not confirmed during the commission meeting.
The Commission’s approval comes on the heels of several land deals worked out by the University in the last month. A $22 million purchase of 3.6 acres in the 3000 block of John F. Kennedy Boulevard expanded the eastern boundary of Drexel in late June, although uses for the space are still being selected. The University also secured popular Philadelphia brunch cafe Sabrina’s as a tenant for the first floor of Ross Commons. But the flurry of expansion at Drexel is perhaps most visible as the Papadakis Integrated Sciences Building nears completion and the demolition of Matheson Hall begins to make way for a new home for the LeBow College of Business.
Each of these projects fulfills University President John. A Fry’s promises to continue expanding the University toward Center City while also infilling current University property. Initial plans for the development of the 3200 block of Chestnut Street were included in the 2007 Master Plan for Drexel University created under late University President Constantine Papadakis.
According to the Drexel Master Plan blog, the infill is needed to fill a gap in mixed-use space along Chestnut Street from 34th Street to the Left Bank apartments near the Schuylkill River. The planned residence halls will help to fill that gap in residential density at 32nd Street and will create a walkable residential neighborhood from 40th Street east to the banks of the Schuylkill.
In an April post to the Master Plan blog, it was said that the University was opening up the development of the buildings to several national firms that specialize in collegiate housing.
“I’m very curious to see the final plans for the building,” Adam Creamer, a pre-junior studying entrepreneurship, said. “I really hope it’s a nicer looking building than MacAlister since, honestly, MacAlister is starting to look old. They’re planning on putting a lot of buildings in a very small area and it will be interesting to see how the plans come together without making it look like an eyesore.”
Without seeing finalized plans, other students were also cautious on judging the future residence halls.
“That’s a very small piece of land the buildings will be going on,” Danny Bo-Tao Chen, an information technologies student who was using the outdoor seating near the Creese Café this week, said. “I really can’t see how these buildings can be anything but really skinny, so it will be cool to see the design when it happens.”
Digital media student Jordan Stewart acknowledged that there was a need for additional student housing.
“I think it’s a good idea,” Stewart said. “I can see why we would need the space since so many students live off campus. It would be nice to have a dorm that is so close to our classes as opposed to just on the northern side of campus.”
Stewart also said that there might be better options for where to put the new dorms and suggested using the recently purchased track of land along J.F.K. Boulevard instead of along Chestnut Street.
“I don’t see why we can’t put the dorms somewhere else; that’s a really small space to put new buildings,” Stewart said. “It’ll just be buildings on buildings.”