As we come to the end of another academic year, we can’t help but look back at how much our campus has transformed with the completion of two major projects, Gerri C. LeBow Hall and Chestnut Square, and what’s still ahead.
With Chestnut Square, Drexel was finally able to add more retail to our campus and revitalize part of Chestnut Street. The addition of two new restaurants, Zavino and coZara, offers more upscale dining options for students and faculty, as well as the convenience of an art supply store for Westphal students, among other establishments. Even though the added retail still can’t compete with all that the University of Pennsylvania’s campus has to offer, it’s a drastic improvement and has been welcomed into our community. Thanks to Drexel’s choices in retailers, students now have more places to shop and socialize on campus than ever before. The Triangle sees this as a positive development.
Chestnut Square’s ground-floor retail has set a precedent, though. Drexel (and UPenn, once its New College House across the street is finished) is now in the business of revitalizing street life. The University has achieved this excellently on the south side of Chestnut Street, but the north side still leaves much to be desired. One of Drexel’s priorities going forward should be to activate that side of Chestnut, through the vaguely planned Chestnut Street Food Pavilion, and maybe through some ground-floor retail in front of Stratton Hall.
So those are the positives. On the other hand, residents have been complaining that there are leaks in Chestnut Square after less than a year of use. Water infiltration is one of the most difficult things to fix in any building, and to have it occur so soon after construction is finished displays fundamental flaws in the building envelope.
It’s no secret that Drexel’s campus has been lacking aesthetic appeal for some time. For decades, we’ve been notorious for orange bricks and no green space. With three new buildings — the Papadakis Integrated Sciences Building, Gerri C. LeBow Hall and Chestnut Square — all made from similar materials and having a similar exterior color, there is no cohesive look with the remainder of campus.
Green space has been annihilated in favor of revenue-producing buildings. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the quality of the retail and academic space is just as important. But there are places that should be reserved specifically for a breath of air in the midst of our city campus. The area behind Gerri known as the Quad has become an area containing twice as much concrete as grass. The Quad is dead. It looks as though someone must have put together drawings for Gerri Hall with a placeholder quad, and the administration said, “Yeah, looks great. We’ll go with that.”
It takes more than gray pavers to make a good public space; it takes engagement and activation. Add some benches, some tables with umbrellas. Schedule more events. Add a permanent or semipermanent stage for scheduled or improvised concerts or rants by campus political organizations. Granted, the Quad has been used throughout the term for a few outdoor events, but on an ordinary day, students pass through without so much as a pause. Nobody lingers there, even if they have free time to do so, because the Quad is simply an unpleasant place to be.
Furthermore, it’s graded improperly, leading to puddles when it rains. It has even settled unevenly over the spot that used to be the fountain, leading to an enormous triangle-shaped puddle after each rainstorm, a ghostly reminder of our Quad’s former, more fulfilling life.
Then there’s Lancaster Square, which has its share of problems.
Temple University recently finished a large residence hall called Morgan Hall. It has been criticized for being vastly out of proportion with its surrounding neighborhood. At 27 stories, looming over a three-story rowhouse neighborhood, it’s easy to see why.
Drexel saw it and thought, “Man, we’d like to have one of those!” and planned Lancaster Square, a 24-story apartment and retail complex, on a hill looming over a different three-story rowhouse neighborhood. It and UPenn’s New College House began construction at roughly the same time. Lancaster Hall (another American Campus Communities project) has risen six stories in the time it has taken Penn’s contractors just to lay the foundation for the New College House.
Is this indicative of merely a more aggressive construction schedule on the part of Drexel, or is it a sign of shoddy, quick construction? The Triangle cannot say but can only speculate based on the quality of work seen in Chestnut Square.
Drexel’s campus is constantly evolving, and the Master Plan puts us firmly under construction for all of the foreseeable future. Large changes to campus will last for decades and decades and are expensive or impossible to undo. The Triangle urges Drexel to put academics ahead of profits and seriously consider the quality of the Campus Master Plans as it moves forward.