From Civic Center to Cancer Center

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A bill to turn part of the Philadelphia Civic Center property over to the University and to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia was approved last month by Philadelphia City Council. Penn and CHOP plan to construct a cancer-research and -treatment center on the property, which covers 10.7 acres of the 19.2-acre Civic Center site.

   According to Lori Doyle, chief public-affairs officer for the University of Pennsylvania Health System, Penn would first build a freestanding outpatient cancer center, and later a facility devoted solely to cancer research. CHOP would also build a clinical-research facility on the property. The project would include an 1,800-car parking garage and two 900-car parking areas, as well as unspecified “commercial ventures.”
   In return for shouldering the cost of “environmentally remediating” and demolishing Exhibition Hall and Center Hall — an 8.5-acre lot that would be divided into two parcels — Penn would receive the larger (six-acre) parcel. CHOP would pay $3 million for the smaller (2.5-acre) parcel. The total cost of developing the property, which also includes a 2.2-acre surface parking lot, is estimated at $450 million, of which some $320 million would be put up by the University and virtually all of the rest by CHOP. None of the money for this project, incidentally, will come from the recent $100-million gift from the Abramson Family Foundation.
   “Everybody looking at the deal feels that it’s a winner for all the parties involved,” said John Fry, Penn’s executive vice president. “We’re proposing to take an outdated convention facility and turn it into a leading-edge health-care and medical- research center that will eventually produce thousands of jobs for the city without any substantial public subsidy. Unlike prior efforts in this area, all the key players — institutional, governmental, and political — have been at the table, and are all working from the same program.” Noting that Exhibition Hall has only been used for one two-month period over the last five years, Fry called the project a “well-thought-out, incremental approach to the Civic Center’s future development” that will further enhance Philadelphia’s status as a world-renowned healthcare-services center.
   “This would be a patient- and research-driven project,” said Steven M. Wiesenthal, associate vice president for architecture and facilities-management at the School of Medicine. “It would be focusing on cancer, something we haven’t been able to do from the campus-planning perspective. There are not too many places that have the opportunity to bring it all together, centered around a particular disease, the way we will here.
   “From an urban-planning perspective,” he added, “what this allows us to do is to create a complex that will come in line with 30th Street Station, the Post Office, and Franklin Field as one of the great architectural developments on the west side of the Schuylkill.”
   Earlier in the decade, Penn was exploring the possibility of building a whole new hospital and ambulatory-care center on the site — a project that would have cost in the neighborhood of $900 million and added more beds to an already saturated market. That the project never went through is something of a relief to the University.
   “Times have changed,” said Lori Doyle, “and the trend now is to keep people out of the hospital. The last thing we need is more hospital beds. What we really need is more space for outpatient care.”
   The Civic Center — which hosted the Beatles, the Pope, five national Presidential nominating conventions, and the Philadelphia Flower Show, not to mention numerous Penn Commencement exercises — became obsolete when the Pennsylvania Convention Center opened in Center City in 1993. The project is supported by Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell, C’65, City Council President John F. Street, and the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, which is handling the transaction.
   “I’ve always believed health, medical research, and technology is one of the growth areas of our economy,” said Rendell. “This is a huge jump-start for us in that area.”

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