A hasty urban transformation | The Triangle

A hasty urban transformation

Photo courtesy Drexel University
Photo courtesy Drexel University

It is truly nice to see so many quality experiences come as a result of the many new buildings and site improvement initiatives on Drexel University’s campus.

The Study at University City is yet another example of how Drexel is committed to innovative design that keeps campus experience contemporary and relevant to modern urban life. Also, the Korman Center repurposing project and academic quadrangle renovations will, in my opinion, be the change that finally provides the long awaited transformation of Drexel into a place with highly defined campus identity, consistent with its modern mission.

In moving forward with our improvement initiatives, however, we cannot lose sight of how our patient and methodical approach to development has yielded beautiful results worth the wait.

For instance, the view of the Cira Centre from our academic quad is a poetic statement of urban form. It is a remarkable quirk of circumstance that adds to campus experience in unplanned but, nevertheless, worthwhile ways.

I mention this because the first tower for the Schuylkill Yards Innovation Development project is being planned for the site currently occupied by the former Philadelphia Parking Authority building.

This is significant because this site is directly in the line-of-sight to the Cira Centre when viewed from our academic quad and according to images included in the DrexelNow e-newsletter of March 2, 2016, this new tower is going to be sufficiently high enough to obstruct the view to this building.

To be sure, it appears we did our homework in selecting Brandywine Realty Trust to lead development of the newly acquired lands and air rights that form the 14 acres of this new multiple-use business and education community.

On the other hand, I hope their extensive experience and robust financial capacity in the area of real estate does not lead them to overlook the effect this project, and in particular its buildings, will have on campus life here at Drexel.

Namely, if the purpose of this development is to include education and research space for the university’s everyday affairs of higher education, then losing the view of the Cira Centre from our academic quad will effectively divide the academic portion of the campus into two visually discontinuous zones rigorously separated by the bustle of Market Street.

This will be a tragedy because complaints from students have always been about the lack of visual or aesthetic continuity of the campus that binds it into one cohesive experience.

Further, I believe that with our recent building initiatives — Gerri C. LeBow Hall, the Papadakis Integrated Science Building, the Recreation Center and Perelman Plaza — Drexel is beginning to deliver on this criticism at a level that continues to demonstrate commitment to its modern mission.

Consequently, it would be a mistake to abandon this fortunate circumstance of urban form in that it can be otherwise embraced by way our new partnership with Brandywine Realty Trust.

In a previous submission to The Triangle (October 24, 2014) I commented on the $5 million grant Drexel received from the state to explore the feasibility of developing lands acquired behind One Drexel Plaza as well as the preliminary proposal for what was to be the new AJ Drexel Institute for Energy and the Environment. At the time, this new research facility was going to be 20 stories high and, in response, I further commented that a building that tall on this site would overlook the value this view has to campus life.

Specifically, that “… Drexel is fortunate benefactor of two of the most spectacular pedestrian level views of this building anywhere in the city. The first is the one looking across the One Drexel Plaza parking lot from Market Street. The other is the one framed by the Gerri C.Lebow and Disque buildings when viewed from inside Drexel’s academic quad.”

I further stated that the latter of these two views “… is nothing short of epic and one that makes the campus experience here at Drexel unlike any other” and, in effect, an inheritance of urban form worth preserving.

I do agree, as the DrexelNow article states, that this particular site is important for its potential to contribute to what the author calls a “new gateway to Drexel University.” To this end, the view into the new Perelman Plaza from JFK Blvd as one approaches the intersection at Market Street is a first-class vista and needs to be included as part of the aesthetics that form our campus identity.

However, as stated before, “… I believe our views of the Cira building have become an indispensable feature of campus experience” and design of the new building that occupies the former PPA site needs to reflect the value this view has acquired to life here on campus.

Our partnership with Brandywine Realty Trust is a great thing but, after everything this institution has invested into enriching the aesthetic experience of the facility itself, Drexel should not be hasty in how it proceeds with its next transformational initiative.