University opts for retail over academic space | The Triangle

University opts for retail over academic space

Drexel, a colleague remarked to me the other day, is a university buried inside a shopping mall. Sure looks like it to me.

It’s all a matter of priorities. The 3200 block of Chestnut Street used to be somewhat distinguished from the commercial extension of the street across the Schuylkill. No more. The MacAlister-Creese academic building — admittedly, one of the uglier structures in the city — now has a wraparound of eateries, topped off with a bank.

The plaza in front of MacAlister-Creese, which, granted, was a concrete wilderness, has now become an equally unbecoming concrete playground with chairs and tables set out for casual dining or whatever in such a fashion as to make entrance into the MacAlister wing by the people who work there a kind of steeplechase.

As for Creese, its former entranceways were scuttled entirely, and it took me a month of passing by it to realize that there was an actual way to get into the building: a tiny door made invisible because of its location beside a coffee shop called Joe.

As the slogan that draped the construction site for a couple of years while our City of Mahogany was going up proudly proclaimed: “Live. Dine. Shop.”

Not a word, alas, about “Study. Learn. Educate.”

Like I already stated, it’s a matter of priorities.

Let’s continue our survey of Chestnut Street.

On the corner of 33rd Street — across from where the University of Pennsylvania is busily eliminating the last remaining green space on Chestnut to build new dormitories — is a small Drexel building, formerly the Newman Center, with a parking lot annexed to it. It is not an ideal use of space on a crowded campus.

Beyond it, fronting Market Street, is the W.W. Hagerty Library. The library is laughably inadequate even by the standard of a respectable community college. Part of its space was hijacked by the School of Law.

Some of what remained was turned into, you guessed it, another cafe eatery. I do have to wonder whether academic credit should be given for caffeine consumption at Drexel.

Well, you might think, wait a minute. Why not use the Newman space and the parking lot to build another wing of the library, with perhaps an elevated crosswalk to connect the buildings? Alas again, there is something Drexel appears to need a lot more than a library actually befitting a university.

You’ll never guess, but it’s a hotel. Wait, though: isn’t there a Sheraton Hotel just three blocks up the street? Does Drexel really need a hotel of its own to teach the critical academic subjects of catering and hospitality? But, of course, the Sheraton is now partially owned by Penn.

If Penn had a law school and a medical school, Drexel had to have one too. That was the reasoning of our late president, Constantine Papadakis. Well, since Penn has a hotel … fill in the rest for yourself.

Someone asked me what the difference between Penn and Drexel was these days, what with our University gobbling up every bit of real estate in sight and shoveling in students by the forkful. I paused to give this due consideration. “Nothing much,” I said. “Just about three million books.”

I’m sure the new hotel will have all the latest amenities. I’ll think about them when I wonder which toilet or faucet will work in MacAlister, or which of its two elevators will be functioning on any given day. Always bring a book or a tablet with you when you go up or down, and don’t forget to bring a courtesy deodorant — you never know when you might be spending a while there.

Let’s go back to Chestnut. There used to be a tiny bit of greensward between the phalanx of buildings on the north side of the street and the Main Building. It wasn’t anything much, but at least it rested the eyes from concrete.

Now, thanks to the beneficence of that noble philanthropist, Ray Perelman — you know, the guy who helped steal the Barnes art collection from Lower Merion at a taxpayer cost of $300 million — we have … more concrete. No doubt there’ll soon be tented bazaars there, selling key chains, hot dogs and classic movie posters. If only we could pave the sky.

Robert Zaller is a professor of history at Drexel University. He can be contacted at [email protected]