Embrace and Enliven

The announcement last month of Drexel University’s draft master plan (by the Boston firm Goody Clancy) was a purposely subdued event, a presentation only to interested parties, with documents only later released publicly on the master plan blog.

All images credit Drexelmasterplan. The dream--and the reality.

What a treasure trove of documents they are! Three PowerPoints–a vision, a strategy, and implementation–show how, for the next three decades, Drexel is planning–and planning big. Gone are the parking lots around 30th Street Station. Gone, the excessive grass lots and naked service bays interspersed throughout campus; gone, the wasteful, suburban-style retail at its fringes: Firestone, 7-11, I’m looking at you. And in the future, Drexel wants air rights development over the vast field of trackwork and coaches that is the Powelton Yards.

Yeah, that's not going to happen.

It is not a perfect plan. A crush on the High Line presents itself as an utterly impossible project. (You try to tell Norfolk Southern, CSX, and Canadian Pacific they can do without their primary port lead and only double-stack-capable route through the city, or tell Drexel just how much it costs to build an urban rail bypass–warning: epic PDF.) Much–too much, possibly–of it is predicated on the materialization of market-rate development. But it makes the right gestures–toward infill, toward filling the holes the Brutalist buildout left, toward linking the campus with its neighbors.

Multiple greenway and streetscape improvements permeate the plan. Here is JFK Boulevard.

Key to this linking is the beautification of the routes around, and through, campus. In the past such beautification efforts might have been limited to the main quad. Not here, though: not only does the main quad get a makeover, but so does every major route–Lancaster Walk, Woodland Walk, 32nd Street–and even streets that actually host traffic, such as Market and JFK. These beautification projects are key to the core vision of the plan: that “University buildings will embrace and enliven city streets” (emphasis theirs) and that Drexel will interlink with its neighbors and Center City as a broader whole to be part of a “regional economic engine.”

What Drexel wants its campus to look like, when all is said and done.

Thankfully, the parking lots are going away, the one at 30th and Chestnut being replaced by a new engineering school, the one at 30th and JFK a long-sought hotel, the north side of JFK a stretch of solid urbanization. Thankfully, underperforming buildings are being augmented, if not replaced completely: Hess Laboratories, Disque Hall, Myers Hall, and so forth. Unfortunately, however, all these changes can’t come soon enough, for it is neither just the improvement of buildings’ street relations, nor just streetscape improvements–but rather a combination of the two–that will create the desired urban, interconnected campus.

About the author

Stephen Stofka is interested in the urban form and the way we change it. A graduate of the Geography and Urban Studies program at Temple University, he enjoys examining the architecture, siting, streetscapes, transportation, access, and other subtle elements that make a city a city.

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7 Comments


  1. I agree. A very ambitious plan indeed.

  2. If Drexel gets this done, it would do more for the Gateway to West Philadelphia then anything UPenn doid….

  3. the firestone building is a masterpiece of its genre and should be converted to a wonderful urban bistro with landscaping to replace the parking lot. the large metal doors could be retracted in the summer months for inside/outside dining that is not in the middle of traffic or on the sidewalk like most center city outside eating areas. firestone is a contemporary piece of architecture that is so easy to overlook it great distinction. like the recently lost hillman building at 22nd and chestnut. history is not about the 18th or 19th centuries…it is also in these two buildings about the recent past

  4. Unfortunately what is lost here is the reality that all this will be built on the backs on millions of dollars student loan debt. Drexel is supposed to be a institute of learning not a worlds fair.

    With tuition nearly double was it was just 9 years ago it will be the students who pay and pay heavily for these overly ambitious projects which do little to actually improve their education.

    • As a recent grad (not of Drexel, heck no) I can feel the pain…but in my last semester there was a lot of chatter about how there seems to be a student loan bubble and that it’s in the process of bursting.

      And by the way, the schools who I want to die most are those idiotic “for-profit” institutions which regard education in the same way “for-profit” insurers regard health insurance–that is, they get the most money when you pay but you don’t get any.

  5. I am a Drexel employee and was present at the Strategic Planning mtgs. The funding for these projects are NOT coming from tuition. They are coming from donations, bonds, even the 40 million dollar revenue from the online programs. Also, regarding the “Philly High Line” project- this was described as more of a BHAG. If the city ever allowed the decommissioning of the tracks, then Drexel would take it over. This is not something they are working to in the near (10-15 year) future.
    John Fry is a visionary and we could not ask for a better president. Within the next 10 year, expect Drexel to emerge as a major tech University that competes against some of the best.

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