February 10, 2012 by Stan Wright
A joint force of Texas-based campus housing developer American Campus Communities and Drexel University are turning the 3200 block of Chestnut Street into a mixed-use student housing and retail development, as announced Feb. 2 in a University press release.
Construction has already begun on the 361,200-square-foot project, which will add approximately 863 beds to the University’s housing offerings in the form of townhouses, two-bedroom suites and single-student units. The complex will also feature 25,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space in the form of 11 retail units.
American Campus Communities was one of 10 developers that presented its plans for the University City campus space to a Drexel selection committee in early 2011. ACC contributed roughly $97 million to secure the project and will lease the development once it is completed.
“We heard presentations from all 10 groups, and we selected American Campus with the best proposal, the best project, the best design, the most beds and the best reputation,” Jim Tucker, Senior Vice President for Student Life and Administrative Services, said.
Tucker explained why he thinks developers were initially so interested in this space.
“Truthfully I think Drexel is a happening place. Student enrollment is growing, and this space is right at the corner of Drexel and UPenn,” he said. “It ends up as a perfect destination for retail for both Drexel and Penn students.”
Originally the space was destined to become a cafe, as designated by the 2007-2012 Master Plan, Tucker explained.
“I said, ‘Why do we want to stop there — why don’t we put retail right along Chestnut?’” Tucker said. “We started the project as only about a third of the size it is now, and American Campus came in with their proposal to supersize it.”
In anticipation of the initial cafe idea, Tucker and other Drexel representatives approached the City of Philadelphia, asking to purchase the feet of sidewalk on the block that was owned by the city.
“We didn’t own enough property up to the sidewalk — the city owned the last 20 feet. We bought the rights to the sidewalk on Chestnut and Market so we could bring buildings right up to the sidewalk,” he said. “That’s what you want in an urban environment, especially when you’re putting retail right on the sidewalk. The project wouldn’t have happened if we had not bought that extra strip of sidewalk in 2008.”
Tucker has been an active participant in the negotiations of the project from day 1, along with Bill Bayless, American Campus CEO. Vice President of University Facilities Bob Francis has been working under Tucker alongside Robert A.M. Stern Architects to hone the aesthetic look of the space.
“We’re using the same design firm that’s building LeBow, so the best thing is that we’ll have two buildings being built basically at the same time, opening around the same day,” Tucker said.
“I’ve been involved in the design aspects and the preconstruction aspects,” Francis explained. “This project is big and it’s interesting, and it’s very important for Drexel right now in terms of the master plan and developing the campus.”
Francis explained that the plan includes two eight-story buildings in front of MacAlister Hall and Creese Student Center, leaving a quad open surrounding the Handschumacher Dining Center. The design also includes a 19-story residential tower at 32nd and Chestnut streets.
“In the tower you’ll have two main formats. One is a traditional two-bedroom suite for four students, and then there will be some single-bedroom occupancy opportunities for people who want to have a smaller living arrangement,” he said.
“They’re under construction at this point on a timeline that has them opening the project for student occupancy right around Labor Day of 2013. Twenty months from now it will be done and open,” Francis said.
The University is still in negotiations with American Campus Communities regarding which vendors will take up the 11 retail spaces, but Tucker was able to provide some insight into their plans.
“The expression of interest from retailers has been very great,” Tucker said. “We know that there will be six food-and-drink vendors and five service or soft-goods vendors. 33rdand Chestnut will house a two-story restaurant similar to Landmark Americana but more upscale.”
Among the types of restaurants mentioned, he suggested that there would be a burger joint, an ice cream store and a coffee shop. Other proposed vendors include a bank and an athletic apparel store. There will also be a new corner entrance to Drexel’s Barnes and Noble.
Since American Campus Communities will be leasing the buildings after they open, all the employees working in the retail and dormitory spaces will be ACC employees.
Francis explained how the new structure would integrate into the existing buildings.
“Although at the lower levels the buildings will be right up against the buildings behind them, as soon as you get above the first two levels the buildings are comfortably separated,” he said. “The natural question then would be, ‘How is this going to affect the views from the upper floors of MacAlister?’ There will still be views from out the corridors between the buildings,” Francis continued.
Throughout the planning process, the University was supported by Mayor Michael Nutter and Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who helped Drexel meet zoning, planning and permit regulations.
“This innovative partnership combining dynamic urban retail with high-quality student housing will serve as a catalyst in continuing the revitalization of our campus and surrounding community,” President John A. Fry said in a press release.
A groundbreaking will take place Tuesday Feb. 21 in the quad by the dining hall, during which Fry and senior vice presidents from American Campus Communities will celebrate the partnership.
“It’s a celebration of some company out in Texas putting $97 million toward Drexel’s future,” Tucker said.