John Fry to Powelton Village: We’re in Your Corner

Detail from image of UCHS from

What would the residents of Powelton Village like to see Drexel University do with the University City High School site? Top of the list: create a new K-8 public school to augment the highly regarded Samuel Powel School.

What would be the last thing they want to see on the site? More student housing.

What is Drexel University’s top development priority for the UCHS property? Build a new, university-assisted K-8 public school. What won’t it put on the site? New dorms.

Neither Drexel University President John Fry nor the civic leaders, architects and planners who organized a March 5 planning workshop at 38th Street and Lancaster Avenue had spoken to each other before the event, but comments Fry made in a post-workshop interview made it seem as though he had read their minds.

“We are committed to creating a K-8 university-assisted public school, like Penn Alexander but with differences that reflect things we’ve learned along the way,” Fry said after the workshop. (Fry was Penn’s executive VP when the school announced its plan to build a new K-8 public school at 43rd and Spruce streets in the late 1990s.)

He went on to explain that the school would have a STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) focus and involve a number of institutional partners beyond Drexel, including the Science Leadership Academy — itself a partnership between the School District of Philadelphia and the Franklin Institute — and the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.

“That’s why we bid for the site,” he said. “We can accommodate campus expansion elsewhere” — residents worried about students overwhelming Powelton Village, please copy — “but we bid on that site because it would be a great site for a school.”

Fry also said that Drexel is looking for all the input it can get on how to reshape the 14-acre site to benefit the community as well as the university. “I welcome all the feedback we can get. This will be a complex endeavor, and the School District can’t commit funds” to its redevelopment, he said. “There are a lot of things we can do with this site, and one of them will be this new school.

“There’s room for Science Center-style development on the site too. How can we do it in a way that yields us the school? That’s our goal.”

The  more than 150 University City residents who brainstormed priorities for the site had visions similar to Drexel’s. They came up with recommendations that varied in use and density — from low-rise residential with street-level retail near Powelton and Lancaster avenues to denser buildings (maybe even a 50-story skyscraper) on the portion of the site closest to the Science Center and 36th and Market. Though Fry did not mention it, the parcel’s size would certainly allow room for the community’s No. 2 priority: green space in the form of either a park or a continuation of the UCHS produce farm, or both.

Community leaders had worried that the parcel could be overdeveloped going into the workshop. As Interface Studio’s Rick Young pointed out, the site’s zoning allows a developer to put the equivalent of five City Halls on it by right — and two more if it meets the requirements for bonuses.

Mike Jones, president of the Powelton Village Civic Association, expressed relief that the School District picked Drexel as the winning bidder for the UCHS parcel, but criticized the selection process. “The School District put up 14 acres of public land with no opportunity for public comment on its use,” he said. Given the zoning, it could have been a recipe for disaster, but Jones trusts Drexel to work as a neighborhood partner.

“With another developer, there was no guarantee that we would be part of the process going forward,” he said. “I can now say with confidence that we will be.”

The workshop was co-sponsored by the People’s Emergency Center, Interface Studio, V. Lamar Wilson Associates and the Community Design Collaborative.The civic groups that co-sponsored the event included the PVCA, the Mantua Civic Improvement Committee, the Mantua Community Association, the West Powelton Civic Association and Saunders Park Neighbors, and the Philadelphia City Planning Commission lent staff to facilitate discussions. The organizers will compile the residents’ recommendations for development of the UCHS site and send the recommendations to both the School Reform Commission and to Drexel.