Drexel University closed a deal June 16 to purchase a 14-acre property within Powelton Village, including the closed University City High School, Charles R. Drew Elementary and the Walnut Center, for $25.1 million. University City High School and Drew Elementary are both schools that were shut down after severe budget cuts for the last academic year.
The sale of the properties were in an effort to help financially support the School District of Philadelphia by Mayor Nutter and other officials to avoid more budget cuts in the coming fall. The original agreement for Drexel to purchase the schools was approved by the School Reform Commission of Philadelphia March 20.
“Now we’re gearing up for what the plans will be as it takes shape and looking at initiatives and at demolishing existing buildings. We’re getting ready to clean up the site. A lot of things will start happening very soon,” Robert Francis, the vice president of University Facilities, said.
Drexel had been looking into the property since 2013 because of its partnership with Samuel Powel Elementary in its interest to expand the K-4 school for the benefit of the community. This project was further supported by a $215,000 grant awarded by the Philadelphia School Partnership to Drexel and Powel in 2012.
Along with their interest in expanding the local elementary school, the University also invested into the property with Wexford Science and Technology, a subsidiary of BioMed Realty Trust, under the joint venture called Drexel University City Development for research space at the site. According to Francis, they have been involved in the development with the Science Center for some years.
“It’s basically a two-thirds/one-third arrangement, where Drexel is investing the one-third into the property, but we are the managing partner in the joint venture. Even though we are only one-third of the ownership, we are the managing partner and Wexford will be the developing partner,” Francis said.
The University plans to create residential, retail, office, lab and recreational spaces along with two schools, one K-4 and one 5-8, all on the same site.
The housing component will not be open to students, in an attempt by the University to unburden the local population of the increasing undergraduate population moving into the area as well as increasing the amount home ownership around the University for its housing support program, so far facilitating over thirty home sales for faculty and staff.
“It’s a very successful program, but we need more housing stock so it’s available for sale to the next round of faculty and staff who want to buy in this neighborhood,” Francis said.
Although the agreement was set in March, with the closing date set at June 16, the deal ran into some trouble within this process.
On June 3, Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell was outraged by the original set-up of the deal, which lacked a community benefits agreement, according to a June 4 article by CBS Philly.
“You’re not even trying to work with any of us! You come in and you hand an amendment out and say you’re happy to work with me! You didn’t come with any community agreement,” she told CBS Philly. “What do you think this is?”
When asked about the issue, Francis said, “That really didn’t happen. There weren’t any amendments.” He continued, “There were discussions taking place between us and the Powelton Village Civic Association about amendments to the zoning ordinance. All that gotten taken care of.”
Blackwell had a decision on a zoning measure that would allow for Drexel to begin its work on the property delayed by a week. This also reflected concerns over building heights and multi-floor parking in the area.
The University, the Councilwoman and the PVCA came to a community benefits agreement that satisfied them all and allowed for the deal to move forward to closing, according to Francis. The zoning measure was passed June 19, after the university closed on the deal for the school.
“Now that we have the zoning ordinance in place,” Francis said, “the next step will be actually planning and proposing the buildings and when that happens we go through what’s called the Community Design Review Process. There are many steps and many layers in the community planning process and the zoning process was just the first.”
According to a June 16 article in DrexelNow, President John A. Fry said, “This development project aligns perfectly with our commitment to serving as an engine of economic growth and development in West Philadelphia and with our desire to improve public education in the neighborhoods surrounding our campus. It represents an exciting and rare opportunity to convert an underutilized and vacant property into a vibrant center of activity that will meet the needs and achieves the priorities of the surrounding community.”
“It’s just a great time to be able to have the chance to control the future development of this parcel for the benefit of the neighborhoods of West Philadelphia at the same time as we now control the property between 30th Street Station and 32nd and Market streets and the tracks. Now we’ve got both ends of the barbells, so to speak, for innovation in West Philadelphia.”