While We Were Away
September 20, 2021
A map of updates to Drexel University's University City campus since March 2020. Illustration by Alese Dickson.
During shutdowns and lockdowns across the country and around the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was hard to miss images of time seemingly standing still: calendars hung in absented workspaces still turned to the page for March 2020 … out-of-season menus in the windows of shuttered restaurants still teased the planned fare for spring well into summer, fall, winter ... event posters adorned the walls of bathroom stalls, promoting concerts or gatherings that never took place.
For the faculty, professional staff and students who may be returning to Drexel University’s campus for the first time since last March, some signs like this may still remain. But many things are very different. While the world was in retreat, the University and its partners proceeded with transformations that have altered the landscape, the skyline and campus life.
If you’ve been working or learning remotely for the last year and a half, here are some of these differences you’ll notice on and around campus. And this is just the big stuff. Take a look around and reorient. Know that no matter how long you’ve been away or what has changed, you’re a Dragon and this is home.
Scroll on for a virtual stroll through the major projects that Drexel pushed ahead with while everyone was away:
A new public park west of 30th Street Station
When the world went into lockdown in March 2020, this 1.3-acre park at 30th and Market streets named Drexel Square was an unadorned knoll surrounded by construction barriers. Over the past year, the redwood saplings encircling the park have grown tall and shady and the café tables under yellow umbrellas have made it a popular outdoor eating spot. On the park’s western flank, the 1950s modernist Bulletin building (leased by the gene-therapy biotech Spark Therapeutics) emerged from a $43 million rehab this year with a contemporary glass front and new street-level retail. Drexel Square will host community events such as yoga classes, art exhibits and performances. Currently, work is being finished alongside the park to the south, where a SEPTA subway entrance is being replaced and upgraded.
A massive dig site on JFK Boulevard
Immediately to the north of Drexel Square at 3025 JFK Boulevard is a deep hole in the ground that marks the foundation of what will become The West Tower at Schuylkill Yards. The 570,000-square-foot mixed-use building is the first building to be raised by Brandywine Realty Trust as part of Drexel and Brandywine’s “Schuylkill Yards” master plan.
It will add a mix of residential rental units, life sciences and innovation office space, retail and indoor/outdoor amenity spaces to Drexel’s campus. Construction commenced in March 2021 and is anticipated to be completion in late 2023. Brandywine is also drawing up plans and permits to build a new standalone lab building at the intersection of JFK and Market streets, in the former Santander Bank building site at 3151 Market St. The 450,000-square-foot building will house lab and lab-support spaces for a future tenant from the bio-sciences field.
Outdoor space to relax on Market Street
Dragons making their first trip back to campus for fall term will notice a new green space at 32nd and Market streets called The Gateway Garden at Drexel University, which opened in May in collaboration with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. If you were around on campus this summer, you might have noticed this beautiful oasis with a variety of blooming delights to take in, as well as regular programming to attend, like the near-weekly Maker’s Market featuring local vendors as well as 21-and-over events like cider and beer tastings where Dragons were invited to “meet the makers.” These programs will continue throughout the fall term, and Gateway Garden is available to reserve as an event space for Drexel departments and student groups.
Conversion of the Armory into US Squash headquarters and courts
The former Drill Hall in the Pennsylvania Armory at North 33rd Street and Lancaster Avenue, which formerly housed basketball courts, has been transformed into the Arlen Specter US Squash Center. The facility is the world’s largest community squash center, serves as the home for Team USA athletes, and will host numerous events throughout the year ranging from local high school leagues to U.S. Championships.
Construction of the Specter Center was primarily completed by the summer, and activity now is ramping up rapidly. The center includes state-of-the-art competition and training facilities — including 20 squash courts — the U.S. Squash Hall of Fame, a Learning & Innovation Center with classrooms serving local public school students through the SquashSmarts program, and the US Squash National Headquarters. Players of all ages from across the city, including Drexel Dragons, can access the facility through free learn-to-play public clinics and low-cost memberships. The creation of the Specter Center builds upon the strong partnership between US Squash and Drexel, which has proudly hosted the U.S. Open Squash Championships at the University’s Daskalakis Athletic Center since 2011 — the 2021 event will now move across the street to the Specter Center, bringing world-class athletes to Drexel’s campus this October.
Restored skylights and ongoing preservation of Main Building
Dragons may have noticed renovations to Drexel’s Main Building going on before pandemic shutdowns. Since then, renovation to Main Building’s roof and skylight has been completed. Now that the plaster is protected from the weather, the interior ceiling will be repaired and restored. This process is expected to begin in mid-October and finish in late January 2022. In that time, the Great Court will be scaffolded and events booked for the space will be relocated, though all building entrances, stairs, corridors and offices will remain open. Other buildings throughout campus are under scaffolds as they undergo regular façade maintenance this year. For example, repairs to Van Rensselaer Hall, the Academic Building and the General Services Building began over the summer.
New food and refreshments in Chestnut Square
Some old favorites along Chestnut Street like Wahoo’s Fish Taco, Zavino and Joe Coffee closed down at the start of the pandemic, but new meeting and dining spaces have appeared.
Boba King, at 32nd and Chestnut streets below the American Campus Communities’ apartment complex, took over the Joe Coffee space, serving unique milk teas and other sweet treats. Additionally, the new dining and hangout space The Board and Brew near 33rd Street on Chestnut offers everything you crave from breakfast to dessert and coffee to cocktails. Plus, as the name suggests, they have an astounding full game library. Dragons can use the code BBDelivery to receive 15% off their delivery order.
A restored community greenhouse in Stratton Hall
This third-floor sunroom on the Chestnut Street side of Stratton Hall was cleaned out during the spring and reorganized into the Stratton Greenhouse last May. It originally housed a greenhouse as far back as the ’70s and was later used for research and academic purposes, but the space had fallen into disuse in recent years. Students, faculty and professional staff can reserve space to grow plants by emailing email@example.com, but plan ahead: Spaces are already filled for this fall term. Everyone is invited to the grand opening of the Stratton Greenhouse on Oct. 1 and can meet fellow Drexel gardeners at the event hosted by Drexel EcoReps.
A new Center for Black Culture and other student services inside the Rush Building
The Center for Black Culture has opened on the first floor of the Rush Building with renovations and new furnishings to two lounges and a library space. It officially launched in November 2020 and the space opened for use this fall. Artwork from local Black artists will be on display in the Center throughout fall term.
Other additions to the Rush Building include a swath of relocated student resource offices which can now be found in one place, including the Student Center for Diversity and Inclusion (SCDI) , the Student Organization Resource Center, as well as offices of Fraternity and Sorority Life, Student Conduct and the Dean of Students. There are also relocated student organization spaces, new student spaces and an info desk with equipment for student use.
On the second floor and operated through SCDI, all Dragons can now access snacks with nothing more than a swipe of their DragonCard due to the new Mario’s Market food pantry. The pantry opened for pick up in December 2020, and then for in-person shopping in February 2021 with the aim of battling food insecurity within the Drexel community.
Relocation of the Writers Room to Ross Commons
Another new move-in taking place just in time for fall term is Writers Room, now located in charming Victorian rooms on the third and fourth floors of Ross Commons at 227 North 34th St. (also home to Sabrina’s Café).
The move has allowed the community-engaged literary arts program exponentially more space than their old home in MacAlister Hall, and an ideal location in between the residential part of campus and the larger West Philadelphia community they serve. All are welcome to come check out the new space, which includes lounge and seminar rooms, studio and study space, and plenty of old-school vibes with historic furnishings and architectural accents dating back to 1888 when the house was first built for a railroad tycoon and his family.
A new home for Pennoni Honors College at Bentley Hall
Though Bentley Hall (formerly Calhoun Hall) is no new entity on campus — having welcomed its first student residents for the fall 2019 term — the freshly renovated residence hall is now also the home of the Pennoni Honors College. In August 2020, Pennoni offices relocated into a two-story, glass-and-stone, 11,000-square-foot addition at the corner of 33rd and Arch streets. Amenities within this space include a porch, a living room with a fireplace, lounge and office space, seminar and conference rooms, and more. The residence hall portion, meanwhile, was renovated in 2019 with the help of a $5 million gift from Greg S. Bentley and his wife Caroline.
A new public school building for West Philadelphia
Despite a required construction halt during the early days of the pandemic, construction on the first stages of a 14-acre uCity Square development at 36th and Warren streets has progressed rapidly. The first building completed within the master plan, pictured here, was finished last year. It will educate a future generation of Drexel students, as the new home of two local public schools: Samuel Powel Elementary School and the Science Leadership Academy Middle School.
The building began serving K-8 students last spring, though COVID delayed an official opening ceremony. The $40 million building, paid for by funds raised by Drexel from public and private sources, was developed in partnership with Baltimore-based Wexford Science & Technology to ease congestion at Powel Elementary and create a permanent home for SLA-MS, which had been operating temporarily at other locations in University City.
An academic tower for health sciences in uCity Square
Next door to the new K-8 school building, Wexford is also raising the Drexel University Health Sciences Building, an academic tower that will house Drexel’s College of Nursing and Health Professions and various academic and administrative functions of the College of Medicine, which are currently located in Center City and East Falls. The building will total about 460,000 rentable square feet, within which Drexel will have an approximate 29-year lease, and it is expected to be substantially complete mid-2022.
In West Reading, a new instructional facility for med students
Meanwhile, in West Reading, Pennsylvania, the Drexel University College of Medicine at Tower Health within walking distance to Reading Hospital officially opened its location on July 28, with 40 first-year medical students beginning their education on campus the month after.
The program includes state-of-the-art medical education technology in its lecture halls and classrooms; the first floor contains a bioskills and anatomy laboratories for students to practice and hone their skills, and the upper floor contains a Simulation Laboratory for students to practice diagnostic and interpersonal communication techniques in simulated hospital settings. To enhance student wellness and encourage collaboration, the campus also features a fitness center, library resources, lounges and café space.
For regular updates on campus development projects, visit Drexel Facilities.
Reporting by Beth Ann Downey, Alissa Falcone and Sonja Sherwood.