Drexel’s John Fry On Innovation Neighborhood, Schools, UCHS, & The Culture Of “Moving Fast”

December 18, 2013 | by Nathaniel Popkin and Bradley Maule


From Drexel to Center City, and the future in between | Photo: Bradley Maule

From Drexel to Center City, and the future in between | Photo: Bradley Maule

Editor’s Note: Brooklyn born John Fry landed in Philadelphia in 1995, when he was named by then Penn president Judith Rodin as the university’s executive vice president—its chief operations officer. At the top of his urgent to do list was to shape and implement a series of “West Philadelphia Strategies” for economic development, housing, public education, and safety. (As a young planner in my first professional position, I worked closely with Fry and other Penn officials on the initiative, which was at the leading edge of university-community engagement.) At the heart of the thinking behind the strategies was the notion that the city was Penn’s greatest asset; the fates of both were intertwined.

Almost 20 years later, after an eight year stint as president of Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Fry is deep into making a similar case for Penn’s upstart neighbor, Drexel University. Fry was named Drexel’s 14th president in 2010; three years on, he’s put Drexel at the center of an ambitious plan to reimagine the city’s economy, the “Innovation Neighborhood.” Fry’s approach is to form partnerships, exploit geography and infrastructure, and to integrate learning, research, and commerce in what he imagines will be a potent mix. Brad Maule and I met with Fry this week, just as Drexel had submitted a bid to the City to transform the vacant seven acre University City High School campus.

His way is the highway: Drexel President John Fry | Photo: Bradley Maule

His way is the highway: Drexel President John Fry | Photo: Bradley Maule

Nathaniel Popkin: How is it different here from across the street at Penn, what makes what you’ve done so quickly possible?
John Fry: In part what we did across the street. There was a platform. A simple thing like the formation of the University City District back when we started at Penn, it was really hard to create a critical mass of like-minded institutions and people, and so much time was spent building bridges and relationships. And now, however many years later, it’s not only intact but it’s also matured. So things that used to take a longer period of time now the relationships are built and frankly it gives the opportunity to get a little more through play. It’s nice to see that stuff we did in the mid-to-late ’90s enable so much of what is being done today.

The big challenge is economic development. We took on public safety and neighborhood revitalization then. Now, I’d love to see more and deeper collaboration around academic and research related programs that have a real pointed economic development focus and that are meant to take the strategy to the next level, which is new business formation in the area. We all have the nicely built verticals with tech transfers—we’re doing this thing Drexel Ventures. But when you get to this thing we’re calling the Innovation Neighborhood, it depends on all the institutions coming together programmatically. It was easy to do the clarion call of safety—who’s against safety?—but when you’re talking about sharing ideas and putting companies together and collaborating across different institutions, that’s a different level of complexity.

The good news is that a lot of relationships are built and there’s a lot of goodwill. The tricky thing is how to enable what we did with DreamIt Ventures that’s absolutely crucial—in that room that day were Science Center people, Wistar people, Penn people, Drexel people, and they all know that the whole point of this thing is to bring to life new companies and frankly I could care less if they’re CHOP people or Wistar people or Science Center or Penn people—and I hope there will be Drexel people. But to me, bringing all those types of people together to form companies and to begin to strengthen the economic fabric of West Philadelphia.

NP: The Innovation Neighborhood is based on a set of different—but potentially equally powerful—partnerships.
JF: The Innovation Neighborhood was initially driven off two things: First, the incredibly smart investment made by the Board of Trustees in the mid-1990s right before Taki [former Drexel President Constantine “Taki” Papadakis] came to buy the old Bulletin Building and plant and I think the very complementary move that we made two years ago to buy all of the JFK lots, we sort of sewed up the core properties west of 30th Street Station. I think those two real estate moves put together, gave us a viewpoint that, ‘Hey, we have plenty of opportunity for expansion; it should be done in a thoughtful and strategic way and it shouldn’t be merely just an extension of the Drexel campus; it should be something larger and more meaningful.’ Second, when I was at Penn, we bought the Post Office and I had the same point of view: that you want to wrap these campuses around the third busiest train station in the country. Nothing bad can happen with that of course and given all of the land that is there, it provides an opportunity for people to step back and talk about, “Okay, so what are we going to do about this?”

And I give my compliments to [Brandywine Realty Trust CEO] Jerry Sweeney, who I think has really taken advantage of the subsequent transition of that land to Brandywine and I think what he’s going to be doing with FMC, the chemical company at 30th & Walnut, is exactly the kind of thing that you want to have; and of course it will be done in a mixed-use way and projects in the Innovation Neighborhood will probably have the same signature—academic and research use, commercial use, residential, retail—nice buildings that continue to build on some campus tradition but open up new possibilities.

NP: So the Innovation Neighborhood starts on these Drexel-owned properties and then extends to the 30th Street rail yards.
JF: Think of that as the second phase. Think of the Innovation Neighborhood as down payment, 20 years, how do we take advantage of 12.2-acres of property and about 6.5 million square feet of developable land; that’s sort of what that is. That’s a long time but it’s a wonderful opportunity and it really sets the stage for the feasibility study that we’re just about to reward the contract to. If this idea about the Innovation Neighborhood is right, at one point people are going to look up and say ‘Well, where else do we go?’ and if you can go there, now that’s another 25 years. We’re not talking about anything that’s going to happen right away, but if each generation doesn’t take care of that long-term play, you’ll never get done by definition.

NP: Phase One timeline?
JF: Two decades. I think we have about ten sites; if you did a site every two years if you’re lucky and then at a certain point and time, you’re going to have something, and I think the study itself should take another two and a half, three years on the outset. By the time you have your first or second project up and running, you’ll know if it’s technically feasible to do an overbuild over these yards and what it’s going to cost, but by then, when you bring people in to show them, if it’s possible, you can show them some real product, you can say, ‘it’s going to be more of this.’ And so I’m very excited about this because I think when you’re dealing with these sort of areas, if you don’t have a fifty-year point-of-view, then you’re really sort of missing out.

NP: Do you have companies in mind?
JF: We have sectors in mind, healthcare related, like health informatics would be a natural because we’re so heavily invested in nursing, health professions, public health and medicine. If you add all of that up, it’s probably 40-45 percent of our operating budget devoted to health sciences and we have a new College of Computing and Informatics. So that’s a natural nexus right there.

Energy and the environment would be a very interesting play especially given the natural resources here in the Commonwealth. How do you protect the environment while you extract those resources, what do you do with them once you’ve got them, and the fact that Pennsylvania could end up being one of the great energy capitals in this country is not an unrelated fact.

So if I were to make three bets right now, I’d say health, computing and informatics, energy and environment. Now, it is extremely convenient that our brand new business school is located right on the western end of the neighborhood and across the street you have biomedical engineering and the College of Engineering. So when you think of the agglomeration of all those fields, it’s very compelling and we’re also dealing with not only areas where there’s a great societal need, but our strengths as an institution.

A new Drexel icon: Gerri C LeBow Hall of the LeBow College of Business | Photo: Bradley Maule

A new Drexel icon: Gerri C LeBow Hall of the LeBow College of Business | Photo: Bradley Maule

NP: And does the corporate world see that?
JF: We’re making them aware of that and I think they do get it, because I think you see in a lot of big pharma—these internal R&D departments—sourcing to universities and partnerships. So I view the neighborhood as a way of bringing people together: academic institutions, corporate institutions, and other commercial amenity providers, residential, retail, and really doing something different. As a co-op university where virtually all of our kids—over 90 percent are involved in one to three co-ops in their five years—heavily, heavily focused on translational research, which is a results-oriented research, it sort of makes sense to have these people together who we want to give to our students or the opportunities that we want for our faculty separate from the for-profit sector, and we have 1,500 co-op partners worldwide. We have 50-year relationships with places like PECO for example, so it’s natural for us to be in a neighborhood where it’s not just a corporate thing, or an academic thing, or some other thing, it’s just really a bringing together of all these various interests.

"Drexel: Transforming the modern urban university." Robert A.M. Stern's LeBow Hall | Photo: Bradley Maule

“Drexel: Transforming the modern urban university.” Robert A.M. Stern’s LeBow Hall | Photo: Bradley Maule

NP: The pace of change on this campus is astounding. What enabled you to get moving so quickly and effectively here?
JF: I think it’s the tradition and culture established by my predecessors, particularly Taki, a very can-do, let’s-get-it-done, fast-moving type of person, and I’m naturally inclined to be that way. I’m a different person from him but our spirit is very much the same and by its very nature, Drexel is sort of a scrappy institution that certainly doesn’t have enough time and money to do what it wants to do and as a result we come to do very well in the art of partnership because in order for us to move our agenda forward it would be very hard to do that completely independently—we just don’t have the capital. If you can build really good and big mutually beneficial relationships with organizations that enables you to do more, so the merger with the Academy of Natural Sciences, the partnerships with American Campus Communities—these are very big steps forward that we’re taking in partnership with other organizations and I think the last is that there’s something about this institution that is both very focused and devoted to all things Philadelphia and is very humble and easy going compared to other institutions.

We’re very aware of our roots; we were founded as a commuter institution for first-generation, blue-collar kids to get an education and I’ll tell ya—I’m not just telling you this because I’m the president—I am surprised at how many people that I talk to around here, and I’m talking not just the senior administrative types, but of the all the categories of employees here, who really can reflect on and talk meaningfully about the tradition of this institution, starting in 1891, why we are here and what we did and why we do co-op, why we now do translational research, why all the civic engagement they can really articulate. It’s not an abstraction, they really want to be here because they really like what the institution does; the culture is one that is very open to new opportunities and moving quickly to taking advantage of those opportunities and when you put that together, we’re in a good place. This is how we do our work.

NP: One of the challenges is Mantua.
JF: We don’t have a history of doing anything in Mantua, so it’s a challenge but it also is a great opportunity; I think it’s a great opportunity for Mantua, it’s a great opportunity for Drexel University because there I think we see some of the greatest challenges facing this city and in a community that has been I think very underinvested in, and very isolated.

Where do you go if you want to work with Mantua neighborhood? Well the fact is that there are many different groups, all trying to do their best. I just feel for us, our commitment to civic engagement and neighborhood revitalization would have been incomplete if we only thought of Powelton Village or even West Powelton, but know that you can take a look at our police boundaries and our housing programs, we put our arms around all of Mantua, and its not that we want to gentrify Mantua because we have all this space east down to the station, we have millions of square feet that we can develop so this isn’t, ‘let’s move into the neighborhood so we can buy up the properties and we can develop them’—it’s quite the opposite. It’s almost like what we saw west of 40th Street, the institution really needs to put a boundary on its growth, to grow into areas like the Post Office and the Civic Center where there’s no one there and you’re not displacing anyone. In turn, try to make the neighborhoods as good as you can.

Room for growth on the grounds of University High School | Photo: Bradley Maule

Room for growth on the grounds of University High School | Photo: Bradley Maule

NP: Public education is a significant part of this strategy.
JF: The McMichael School was kept open thanks to Bill Hite and the SRC, but we’re doing a ton of stuff there and we really hope that more things can happen with McMichael and on the University City High site. We just put in a bid at 4 o’clock [Monday] for developing the site in partnership with a development company. The bid is the purchase of the site, the development of the site, which would include a K-8 STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) based school, which would have us as partners with the Academy of Natural Sciences, the Franklin Institute, Science Leadership Academy, which would run the middle-school part, and Drexel University, and we’re hoping to add one more really exciting partner as well. For us, as the co-bidder on this, it’s about the school, and the university would have some adjacent land to develop for its academic programs which we hope would be very complimentary to what would happen in the school. The rest of it is commercial and we’re hoping that commercial development would yield an operating income that helps us figure out how to fund the school.

NP: And commercial would include retail?
JF: It will. What you do on Filbert is not what you do on Powelton Avenue or on Lancaster. Lancaster and Powelton Avenues want to have the school, really nice retail, they want to have some nice low-to-medium rise residential. It wants to make itself into West Powelton and Powelton Village on the other side it wants to be next to Penn Presbyterian Hospital and so I think the site is so exciting because it’s so versatile. You can really serve the needs of your commercial and academic parcels on the southern side of the site at Filbert, sort of going up 38th and into the site, but when you get to the middle part when you head a little further north and they want to become part of the neighborhood, and so I think the site can do both; we have a bid that we’re proud of and hopefully things will break our way; the only thing we’re worried about is buyers who are just going use it to land bank and we’re proposing active development right away and the problem with land banking is that you have a bunch of shut-down buildings and a site that has really been compromised. I hope that we’re chosen not only because I want us to be chosen but because I know you would see real vitality in that neighborhood.

NP: A key part of the proposal is to move the Powel School there so it has room to serve its students.
JF: It’s in its own part of the neighborhood, so if we can do right by that school and its children and its parents and everything else that’s going on, I think we have a pretty decent situation. The problem with Powel is it’s a K-4 type site, it’s operating at something like 134 percent capacity. Powel gets put in a better place, and you have Science Leadership Academy. And the only reason that it’s K-4 is because the site is so small and you can’t really do anything and have a decent drop-off point and a pickup point and a playground. Powel is a great school but it deserves a more generous site and it deserves a better school capability and if the Science Leadership Academy can do that, we’re really bringing the richness of all our institutions together.

Eagle-eye Fry: Drexel President John Fry chats with Hidden City's Nathaniel Popkin  | Photo: Bradley Maule

Eagle-eye Fry: Drexel President John Fry chats with Hidden City’s Nathaniel Popkin | Photo: Bradley Maule

NP: Back to the Innovation Neighborhood: I understand you’re interested in having a foreign university (or universities) set up an American campus. I have always thought this was a great idea. Do you have partners in mind?
JF: We do, and we’re talking to a number right now and we’re basically saying, ‘if you want to have US operations, come to the Innovation Neighborhood, we’ll figure out how to give you dedicated space, we’ll make collaborations with you.’ I think the model right now would be the partnership that we just nabbed in Israel with Hebrew University, CHOP, and Drexel Pediatric pharmacology. Now I’m not sure that that’s going to result in Hebrew University coming in and putting a branch in University City, but the idea that you have one of the world’s greatest children’s hospitals and one of the world’s most distinguished international universities and one of the fastest rising American universities coming together makes me think that we’re going to learn a whole lot about them and they’re going to learn a whole lot about us. I can’t imagine that we’re not going to be doing more both in Jerusalem and in Philadelphia and maybe it could be an institution like that or there are others. I know that we just had a very large delegation of colleges from some institutions in Turkey and we’re going back in April, and we have a wonderful relationship with Shanghai right now where we have a branch that’s focused on biomedical research, so we are seeding all of these relationships around the world and I hope that one day someone will say, ‘you know what, we really want to do something in the US and we want to be next to our friends from Drexel,’ and so I could imagine, I could pray that some of the space in this Innovation Neighborhood would be devoted to those types of purposes, and when you think about it, it makes sense, the idea of setting an entire branch campus on your own, in the US, is a really costly and expensive idea. Why not piggyback on the enormous infrastructure in University City, and devote yourself to programmatic concerns and not try to build out a full-fledged campus.

NP: Has anyone else tried this in the US?
JF: The biggest thing that everyone is watching is the Technion-Cornell project on Roosevelt Island in New York. I’m sure that there are international universities that have these branches but not on the scale that we’re talking about, certainly not on the scale of what they’re doing in New York so it’s really exciting.

NP: But are they a competitor?
JF: No I don’t think any of this stuff is competitive, I think it’s just the opposite. You aggregate all of this talent up and down the East Coast and eventually it’s going to find each other. Look at these ecosystems that have developed in Cambridge—no one had a master plan for Cambridge—well you have MIT and Harvard, they’re competitive institutions, but I don’t think people view that as a competitive situation. The same has happened at Stanford and in Silicon Valley and that was planned more deliberately but the fact that we can let this work organically and not consider if something is competitive or not and just sort of let it happen. The spirit of the Innovation Neighborhood is to create the necessary conditions for all of these people to come together because they need each other to advance their work, be they for-profit or not-for-profit or governmental or whatever it is.

NP: Is government a partner in this?
JF: It is. Michael Nutter has been great, absolutely terrific. He helped to facilitate the trip that we had to Israel that we had recently, and he and I are working on some other things. He has some superb deputies who totally get this stuff and [Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Director of Commerce] Alan Greenberger said that the city was going to put in around $750,000 into the whole thing. This is really tremendous stuff and so I think the Nutter Administration and the institutions that have been working on this are in total alignment.

NP: And Federal?
JF: I think eventually when we get to the transportation piece, the second part of this Innovation Neighborhood cannot be possibly be realized without some major federal transportation money and so I think that we’re holding out hope there. And Governor Corbett has also been very helpful in a number of ways. It’s nice that multiple people are supportive, Harrisburg people are supportive and even though we’re still in the really early stages of these conversations at the federal level regarding transportation, I mean they see the possibilities here and the city. The plans for Union Station [in Washington DC] and in New York with the Hudson Yards. This is the future—this is just what’s going to happen and if you take those three cities and do something significant in each of them and make them by high speed rail, it’s crazy what can happen.

NP: What else is missing from University City?
JF: Well I’m sort of resigned to the fact that the institutions are going to have to figure that one out on their own and do that in collaboration like with what DreamIt is doing. But we need more people like [venture capitalist] Josh Kopelman and there are others who will join him in a stage and really start to invest in the city and I think that a lot of that money is now in Conshohocken and King of Prussia—nothing against those places—but honestly we need more of them. Public education, as we’ve talked about already, is totally essential. These neighborhoods never get to be the neighborhoods that they can be if they don’t have decent K-8 education, and we’ll talk about high school down the road.

The corner of 33rd & Chestnut will play a pivotal role in the growth of University City as the nexus of Penn and Drexel. At left, construction crews begin prep work for Penn's New College House; behind that, the rumored site of a new hotel; at center, Drexel's Papadakis Building; at right, Drexel's Chestnut Square | Photo: Bradley Maule

The corner of 33rd & Chestnut will play a pivotal role in the growth of University City as the nexus of Penn and Drexel. At left, construction crews begin prep work for Penn’s New College House; behind that, the rumored site of a new hotel; at center, Drexel’s Papadakis Building; at right, Drexel’s Chestnut Square | Photo: Bradley Maule

NP: Can you talk about rumors concerning a hotel product at 33rd and Chestnut?
JF: Filling in amenities, I think the Inn at Penn has done very well, I’m not sure about the future of the Sheraton; it’s obviously lived a long life as a hotel. We thought about a niched, University City-oriented boutique hotel and picking up all the traffic from Drexel and Science Center, from Penn and from CHOP, and there’s some nice products out there and we’re close to bringing some good news to everyone about that.

The development of those four corners [at 33rd & Chestnut] is vital because that’s really where Penn and Drexel touch each other. The fact is that with Papadakis [Integrated Sciences Building] and with the new residential/retail [Chestnut Square], and Penn developing Hill Field, the last corner needs to be developed.

Lancaster Square, currently under construction at 34th & Lancaster | Rendering by Solomon Cordwell Buenz via Drexel University

Lancaster Square, currently under construction at 34th & Lancaster | Rendering by Solomon Cordwell Buenz via Drexel University

NP: There are five residential towers underway right now in West Philly, which is astounding to me and it must be to you as well, and that’s all based on some imagined University City-based market.
JF: Well, you know, I can only speak about ours [Lancaster Square] and we think at some point we were something like 5,000 beds short of where we wanted to be. If we could do 870 [at Chestnut Square] and this would be about 1,300, we get to 2,200, and I think we pause, we watch and see. The fact is that I have thousands of kids living in neighborhoods and I would rather have more of them living on my campus so that those neighborhoods can go back as neighborhoods, which is what they’re intended to be. I know what transient housing does to these neighborhoods—by nature it just destroys the fabric of neighborhoods. The real estate people coming in speculating, buying these properties and carving them into multi-family units and single-family homeowners move away because they don’t want to live next to ten kids who have late night hours and things like that.

Jerry [Sweeney] is doing the tower [evo, formerly The Grove at Cira South]—I think he’s looking east towards Center City and I think he’s actually looking at places like 2400 Chestnut and saying ‘if I can do a great product here, I can take some of that western Center City market and bring it over to eastern University City.’ I’m not as familiar as to what the Science Center folks are doing and so my view is that we just wait and see what the rate of absorption is.

When [Lancaster Square] opens in September 2015, we will have put a really large dent in these numbers and taken some pressure off the neighborhood. Now we have a sophomore housing requirement that we haven’t had until this year and I think we’ll be in good shape and we’ll see how much of a gap we have in terms of our remaining undergraduate needs and we’ll decide what to do next in 2015.

NP: A great part of your vision is based on the idea of high speed rail.

JF: We need everyone to get serious with high-speed rail, even with the Acela. Flying has gotten too expensive; who wants to schlep to an airport, land, and schlep to the next place? With high-speed rail, it’s 45 minutes to New York and about an hour to Washington. That puts Philadelphia at the 50-yard line of the United States; that is a brilliant geographic place and so if high-speed rail came, I think this Innovation Neighborhood thing and maybe even the larger redevelopment of the Amtrak-SEPTA yards, I think there’s a distinct possibility. It would be a brilliant way of tying everything together.

Drexel's URBN Center by MS&R, upping the ante on academic architecture | Photo: Bradley Maule

Drexel’s URBN Center by MS&R, upping the ante on academic architecture | Photo: Bradley Maule

NP: Back in the 1990s we were thinking about 24/7 neighborhoods but we weren’t talking all that much about top level design adding economic value. Do you see that to be the case now?
JF: Well look at the last two projects that we finished. It’s all about street-facing, transparent, exciting programs to draw kids in 24 hours a day. Look at the URBN Center—they live in that building. It’s better as a 24-hour building than it would be as a 12-hour building and I think that LeBow, with it the way that it addresses the street and its transparency and the way it’s set up it’s going to be another hub, so I think that anything we do, we’re going to do at a higher level of quality architecturally, with a real emphasis on ground floor amenities or at least transparency and then plenty of density. My ideal for a building is retail, academic, commercial, residential: keep it going at all hours of the day.

NP: How important is it to bring the world’s best architects to take some of this through?
JF: I happen to love Cira 1; I think Cesar Pelli did a great job, I think he created a landmark building and I think that’s what we’ll see at Cira 2. We used Robert Stern for two of the last projects that we did, the Minneapolis firm MS&R [who transformed the interior of URBN Center] are amazing, so I think that if you spend a little more money and you’re a little more thoughtful, you’re going to get a better building. You can see how many lost opportunities there are in University City where the building puts its back to the street and opens up in the middle, and we’ve really blown it in a lot of cases. I don’t want to do anything on this campus that isn’t in the new tradition.

* * *

A growing Philly skyline, viewed from Drexel University, bookended by Cira Centre and evo at Cira Centre South; the forthcoming Innovation Neighborhood will encompass the left half of the picture in the foreground of 30th Street Station | Photo: Bradley Maule

A growing Philly skyline, viewed from Drexel University, bookended by Cira Centre and evo at Cira Centre South; the forthcoming Innovation Neighborhood will encompass the left half of the picture in the foreground of 30th Street Station | Photo: Bradley Maule

Special thanks to Stephen Currall for his assistance in transcribing the interview.



  1. Devin says:

    Great piece, although I am still worried about UC just poaching jobs from Market West (FMC), instead of bringing them in from the suburbs or other regions entirely.

  2. Tod says:

    I think part of the vision is to keep the graduates from the Universities here in the city.

  3. Edan says:

    Excellent piece! Fry seems to get it, it excites me to know there are powerful people in Philly who think like him. It gives me hope.

  4. engrdrexelstudent says:

    From a student’s point of view: I think if you want to prevent gentrification of a neighborhood and keep students on campus housing, then Drexel needs to desperately put some effort not only into erecting new housing but revitalizing freshmen dorms. After living on campus freshman year, I refused be a returning customer. Off campus housing gives more autonomy, fair prices, and better maintenance. On campus housing is in competition with the quality and cost of off campus housing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.