Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Schuylkill Yards

Drexel Square rendering

The announcement on March 2 of a landmark partnership between Drexel and Brandywine Realty Trust to develop a 14-acre district called Schuylkill Yards on long-underutilized land adjacent to 30th Street Station inspired headlines, conversation, pride — and also questions. DrexelNow spoke with Keith Orris, Drexel’s senior vice president for corporate relations and economic development, about what this long-term project means for the Drexel community right now.

Q: Schuylkill Yards is a 20-year project with multiple construction phases; what are some changes we’ll see right away?

KO: The first change will be improvements to One Drexel Plaza, including the creation of Drexel Square, a public park area in front of the building on land that is currently a parking lot, and a new, modern façade and exterior improvements for the building itself. Brandywine Realty Trust, the master developer, will be using SHOP Architects and land-planning firm West 8 to design these improvements, with work projected to begin this fall and finish within the next 18 months. The building will be repurposed to include innovation companies and university-related activities.

Another public realm improvement is the reconstruction of JFK Boulevard. The plan is to turn the street between 30th Street Station and the Armory into a “festival street” planted with trees and paved with stones to create a pedestrian friendly promenade that can be easily closed off for special events. When designs are completed, city approvals will be pursued and public funding coordinated for infrastructure replacement. This work could occur in an early phase of the project as the street had been previously scheduled for upgrading.

Next on the timeline is construction of the first new building, which will be located on one of two sites. The building will be at least 700,000 square feet (that’s four times the size of LeBow Hall) and groundbreaking would occur in early 2018. The building should be substantially complete by the end of 2019.

Q: Schuylkill Yards is projected to cost more than $3.5 billion over the life of the development. Where is this money coming from?

KO: Brandywine will be providing the financial resources to design, construct, manage and maintain Schuylkill Yards.

The agreement between Brandywine and Drexel is similar to our other third-party development relationships (American Campus Communities’ Chestnut Square and the Summit, Hospitality 3’s The Study at University City hotel, and Radnor Property Group’s mixed-use residential and childcare center development). In each of these agreements, a developer is granted a long-term ground lease, for which Drexel collects rents. Drexel never gives up ownership of the  underlying land and at the end of the lease — which will vary but it’s typical for a lease of this sort to run well over 50 years — ownership of the buildings revert to the University.

Brandywine is responsible for paying for all of the design, pre-development work, securing the approvals, designing and building the public realm and the structures, leasing the space, and the ongoing management. Our responsibility is to ensure that we work as a partner with Brandywine in abiding by the terms of our agreement and bringing to life the vision we have for Schuylkill Yards.

Q: This really won’t impact the endowment, alumni fundraising or tuition?

KO: Actually, it will impact the endowment, but in a positive way. As Schuylkill Yards is developed over the next 20 years, Drexel has the opportunity to generate millions of dollars from the ground leases for the University’s endowment to invest, versus holding these underutilized real estate assets in our portfolio. 

The endowment growth supports the operation of the University, and the project will not cause tuition to rise as the master developer is covering the costs for creating and operating it. And no, alumni donations are not going toward the cost of this development.

Q: What about the immediate needs for new or renovated offices, labs and classrooms? What is being done to improve academic facilities right now?

KO: Although we’re turning these acres over to Brandywine for development, we have other locations across campus for future buildings. We’ve inventoried our open sites that we own and they provide many opportunities for new and remodeled academic buildings, representing many years of campus growth.

Also this project won’t detract or delay our ongoing progress in renovating and enhancing existing academic buildings. Just in the past couple of years, Drexel has completed a number of major capital projects, renovations and lease extensions to accommodate academic programs. These include the new Gerri C. LeBow Hall, extensive renovations to Nesbitt and Stratton halls, 10,700 square feet of new lab and office space in the New College Building — plus additional leased space to support the work of the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, the College of Computing & Informatics, and certain programs of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Currently, Drexel is investing $13 million to relocate College of Engineering labs and establish the A.J. Drexel Institute for Energy and the Environment at 3101 Market St. Another $25 million is going into renovating Bossone Research Enterprise Center to create new and improved lab facilities. And a $9 million renovation to the Center for Automation Technology/LeBow Engineering Center and the Peck Problem Solving and Research Building will provide classrooms, wet labs and other improvements for researchers and students.

There will also be office space and lab space for Drexel to lease within the new buildings of Schuylkill Yards. We’re anticipating that the first building to be constructed will have 75,000 square feet of lab space for Drexel. The University has the option to lease up to 10 percent of any building at an attractive rate. 

Q: President John A. Fry has said that “inclusion is at the heart of this project.” How will that goal be realized?

KO: We believe the tenants who will want to be a member of the Schuylkill Yards community are those that wish to be close to academic research, have access to our co-op program and a steady pipeline of young professional graduates, as well as the unique connector role that Drexel is going to play.

We believe the economic benefits that tenants will bring to Schuylkill Yards can also benefit our community neighbors in Mantua, West Powelton and Powelton Village.

Vice Provost of University and Community Partnerships Lucy Kerman is my close partner in this and she is designing a program with four planks. One is the support of local businesses through procurement — Drexel already purchases from local entrepreneurs, and we will be marketing those local businesses to the tenants of Schuylkill Yards.

Second, we’ll expect metrics to be met for local workforce and diversity contracting in the construction of the new buildings. Through the Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships, we’ll be connecting people from the community to the firms that will build the structures. Drexel has established a program for this with the University’s construction projects, and we will look for ways to expand on that idea.

The third thing we will do is workforce development services, so that if you live in Mantua, West Powelton or Powelton Village and you are interested in learning about job opportunities or being trained for positions with the future tenants of Schuylkill Yards, we can help, by providing information about job openings and connecting residents to relevant job training. We have already done exceedingly well doing something similar for residents interested in working as medical assistants in our College of Medicine.

And the final plank is Drexel’s investment in neighborhood public schools, through our support of the Morton McMichael School, the Samuel Powel School and the new Science Leadership Academy Middle School, including the development of a facility for Powel and Science Leadership Academy Middle School on the University City High School site.

We believe that if you are a child born in these neighborhoods — in Mantua, West Powelton or Powelton Village, or really throughout West Philadelphia — you should have the ability to grow up, get educated in a good public school, go to a university or college, maybe right here, and then graduate and have the ability to secure a job with a company in Schuylkill Yards.

Q: How will Schuylkill Yards create opportunities for students?

KO: From the conversations we’ve had over the past three years we believe the corporate tenants of Schuylkill Yards will be very interested in employing our students through co-op and post-graduation jobs. We also believe new relationships can be created with companies and organizations leasing space in Schuylkill Yards who want to engage the University for research services and explore new partnerships. We know from our experience over the last several years that companies look at engaging universities in broad and unique ways that support our academic mission.

We also shouldn’t underestimate the intangible benefits and goodwill this project brings. Inevitably, something of this size and ambition elevates Drexel’s stature, which reflects on students, faculty and alumni. We are already receiving national and even global recognition for undertaking this transformational project, and by bringing together an attractive ecosystem around research, entrepreneurialism and academia, we believe this development will be a magnet for recruiting talented faculty and students.