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Seasons change, years pass, students, administrators, and soon, even presidents, come and go, but construction in and around Penn’s campus continues apace.

Operating out of a bright, open, high-ceilinged space that was formerly a basement “under 15 feet of dirt” at the Left Bank, Vice President for Facilities and Real Estate Services Omar Blaik and his staff oversee the University’s physical environment. Sometimes this oversight can be measured in seconds—monitors track campus buildings’ electricity use in real-time to help control energy costs, which are calculated based on peak-period consumption—and sometimes in years or decades. Definitely falling into the latter category is the development of 24 acres to the east of campus, which, after much discussion, the University has all-but-acquired from the U.S. Post Office for $50.5 million. As of early October, the purchase had been approved by Penn’s trustees and the Post Office’s board, and all that remained was to sign a formal agreement of sale. “The big decisions have been made,” Blaik says.

Unfurling a large campus map, Blaik begins a tour of the Penn neighborhood, starting with that long-coveted territory, which one day will extend the campus to the banks of the Schuylkill River.

That day won’t come for a while, though. Under the current timetable, the University won’t take possession until spring 2007, after which the Post Office will lease back about 200,000 square feet of space for another 10 years. Having a tenant signed up is a prudent safeguard, Blaik says. “The idea is that we just need a buffer, until there is a market to develop this part of town.”

While details remain fluid, the “grand vision” is a mixed-use neighborhood that includes office space for incubating high-tech companies, research labs, high-rise luxury apartments, ground-floor retail, and gardens and other public spaces, Blaik says. A key element is making the Schuylkill more attractive and accessible, and toward that end, Penn has invested heavily in the Schuylkill River Development Council (SRDC); he and President Rodin sit on the organization’s board. SRDC focuses on both sides of the river, tapping the connections between University City and Center City “to improve the infrastructure that will allow this vision to happen.” 

The project presents an unprecedented opportunity for both Penn and the City of Philadelphia “in terms of dealing with industrial wasteland without having to relocate people or having to do what we did here in the 1970s and really displace people,” he says. “And it would be one of the largest urban planning projects probably in any urban city in America.” 

The commercial and residential development will occur primarily in the space between Market and Walnut Streets. “Between Walnut and South Street is more athletic facilities, more academic facilities,” he says, and the area will include a field house and space for intramural sports. The first thing done in 2007 will be “to take the blacktop off the parking lots south of Walnut and put in playing fields,” he adds. “It will look a certain way in five years, it will look better in 20 years. But all of that will be for the good —anything will look better than the parking lots.” 

In all, the project could involve up to 3 million square feet of developed space, with a value of roughly $400 million, he says. Development costs won’t be borne by the University, though. Instead, Penn will lease the space “and let some developer come in with their infrastructure,” Blaik says, as was done with the Left Bank, the former GE Building that Dranoff Properties developed into high-end apartments in exchange for a long-term lease, with the ground-level space occupied by University organizations, including Penn Mail Services, the Penn Children’s Center daycare facility, as well as facilities and real estate and some other departments.

The largest building project that is currently under way, at close to $200 million, is the conversion of the former Civic Center site by Penn’s Health System and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia into patient care and research facilities, Blaik says. Now in the “preschematic” stage, design will start in earnest in a few months, with construction expected in the spring of 2005. 

New campus buildings include the Melvin J. and Claire Levine Hall (see p. 42), which opened in the fall, and Hillel’s new building, Steinhardt Hall, dedicated in late October. Skirkanich Hall, the new bioengineeering building, will start construction in the summer, as will a new lab building for the School of Veterinary Medicine.

Just begun is the life-sciences building, a controversial project because of persistent accusations that it will encroach on the “BioPond,” a beloved campus landmark and oasis [“Gazetteer,” September/ October 2002]. “The funny part is how misinformed everyone continues to want to be,” says Blaik with some frustration. “We showed them how we are building on sites that currently there are buildings on. And we are not touching the bio pond, which we just spent half a million dollars to restore.” [“The BioPond is Back,” July/August 2001].

Another new building project is the McNeil Center for American Studies, a 10,000 square foot building now in design and scheduled for construction this summer. The building will be set along the new Hill Square, which is replacing the former Hill Field with a sculpture garden commemorating the 2001 Celebration of 125 Years of Women at Penn, plus walkways, benches, and landscaping—which will make the park reminiscent of Rittenhouse Square in Center City, says Blaik.

By taking down the chainlink fence and opening up what used to be an athletic field, “you’re saying, ‘We are a public city, and this is a public square,’” he adds. Across Chestnut Street, a new dormitory building and a rental-apartment and retail complex will bring more people to live in that part of campus. The dormitory will be built around an existing parking garage on the Northeast corner of Chestnut, while the commercial building will rise from what is now a surface parking lot. Both projects are expected to be open by 2005.

Adding beds at the eastern end of campus will make Penn less of a pedestrian “commuter campus,” says Blaik, with a stream of students crossing 38th Street for classes and returning at the end of the day. It should also open up more of the housing stock west of 40th Street for families and others.

Meanwhile, the much-maligned high-rises are getting a major makeover—their first since they were built in the early 1970s. “We just finished [Hamilton] with great success,” Blaik says (see previous story), with Harrison and Harnwell to follow this year and next.

Another renovation project will create a new home for Penn’s radio station, WXPN, in a University-owned former industrial building at 206 S. 31st Street. The station’s studio and offices will occupy half of the space, with the other half taken up by the World Café—“a musical/ dining venue” that will be the physical manifestation of the popular music-program hosted by WXPN’s David Dye. “We think it’s a terrific gateway for the campus. We think of Walnut as the arts and culture corridor,” from the World Café to Irvine Auditorium—actually on Spruce, but close by—to the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts to The Bridge Cinema at 40th Street, he says.

Next door to the future WXPN headquarters, another building is being converted for medical school research space. In all, says Blaik, “By the end of next year, we will have about 170,000 square feet of development on the east side, once again trying to meld together the vacancies between Center City and the campus” until the two meet seamlessly.

Back in the heart of campus, on the corner of 36th and Walnut, an Ann Taylor Loft store will open in the building most recently occupied by a branch of Citizens Bank—a caliber of tenant that is a far cry from the days when “we were trying to do a grocery store and no one wanted to talk to us,” says Blaik.

Casting his eye up to 40th Street, Blaik rattles off a string of new businesses—a mix of chains and local efforts —on the way or recently arrived. These include Qdoba, a new Mexican restaurant; a Metropolitan Bakery; Bucks County Coffee; a used comics-and-CD store; “a coffee shop with panini and wraps”; a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream store; and a Marathon Grill opening above The Bridge Cinema, featuring live music and entertainment as well as a restaurant; plus the avant-garde Slought Foundation art space and plans to “infiltrate” the area with several galleries and art houses.

“It’s not your father’s 40th Street anymore,” he sums up.


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