November 16, 2012 by David Stephenson
Drexel University will spend at least $1 million on a study into the possibility of expanding the University City campus above the Schuylkill Rail Yards that feed 30th Street Station, The Philadelphia Inquirer and University officials reported Nov. 11.
The study, which will focus on the 96-acre rail yard currently owned by Amtrak and SEPTA, has the potential to be a first step in what could amount to the largest visible change the campus has seen in decades and a major realignment of not only Drexel but also University City culture, development and visibility. In alignment with the University Master Plan for Development, President John A. Fry told the Inquirer that the study, which is being conducted in partnership with Amtrak and SEPTA, would be considering ways to connect the traditionally separated University City District to the economic areas of Center City and the cultural and recreational areas of the Art Museum and Kelly Drive.
“This study represents a serious attempt to try to figure that out,” Fry told the Inquirer. “If the answer is yes, it opens up possibilities that I don’t think anyone has really ever thought about before, to link the city in various ways. This could be the basis for Philadelphia’s innovation and economy for the next 100 years.”
While there is certainly a massive potential for developing and expanding the University’s footprint in Philadelphia, the study will also take a look at the challenges that have traditionally prevented development of the rail yard area. The Master Plan calls for an extended above-ground platform, essentially building structures atop existing rail lines. But two major issues — the presence of high-voltage electric lines and the presence of the nation’s busiest rail line, the Northeast Corridor — would require rail delays, skilled, unionized workers and potentially prohibitive costs.
Philadelphia history has left a long string of investors looking to develop the rail yards for uses as varied as stadiums and office buildings, but none have had the same physical proximity and direct advantages and rewards that Drexel has and would receive by developing the yards.
Also proceeding outside of the study is an “innovation neighborhood” to fill the parking lot and the area abutting One Drexel Plaza and 30th Street Station with 5 million square feet of commercial space. Included in the innovation neighborhood portion of the plan are research laboratories, student housing, retail space and a hotel. The Drexel Master Plan blog described the area as a “Superblock” in May and noted the importance of the area in the context of the original plan for the City of Philadelphia.
“Had the original rhythm of the City Plan extended west, the sixth major public square in Philadelphia would have been developed at 30th and Market streets,” the blog said, pointing toward the block as the logical extension of the city’s grid system.
The current central focus of the space, the parking lot in front of One Drexel Plaza, creates an “empty and intimidating gap in the urban fabric” for visitors to University City and the general public exiting 30th Street Station, a major transportation hub, the Drexel Master Plan said. The plan also called out the Market Street facade of the former Bulletin Building as dissuading walkability with its largely opaque ground level. The planned innovation neighborhood is meant to address all of these issues and become the predominant portal to Drexel and, by extension, University City.
Action steps included in the Master Plan for One Drexel Plaza include a study to explore the possibility of adding floors to the old Bulletin Building, development of significant pedestrian-oriented retail space, the elimination or relocation of the intercity bus stop on John F. Kennedy Boulevard, and the development of a hotel and conference center.
The approximate cost of implementation, according to the Master Plan, is listed as an ambiguous “TBD.”
Fry said that the University had no specific cost estimates for the development of either the rail yards or the innovation neighborhood, but he did tell the Inquirer that the development would be funded predominantly by third parties.
“We’re trying to use other people’s money and our land,” Fry told the Inquirer. He also said that he was looking for corporate partnerships and partnerships with international universities for a research and graduate center. The center would fund itself and part of the development through the commercialization of its inventions.