|On the 52nd floor of the Comcast Center in Center City, Penn Board of Trustees Chair David L. Cohen L’81 sometimes likes to greet visitors by taking them to what he calls “the closet with the best view in all of Philadelphia.” Situated, somewhat puzzlingly, in what might otherwise be a prime office in the building’s southwest corner, it offers through its floor-to-ceiling windows a vantage that bears out the truth behind the title of the University’s “Penn Connects” master plan.
“Look how beautiful the campus looks from 900 feet in the sky, with this band of green going across the river and into campus,” Cohen marveled on a rare day of sparkling sunshine in late August.
Lying across the water from the southernmost segment of the Schuylkill River Trail, Penn Park does in fact register from above as a sort of linking mechanism between West Philadelphia and Center City. The pedestrian bridge that was once proposed as a direct connection between the two green spaces may be a dream deferred to rosier economic times, but one of the most striking aspects of landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh’s design is a pedestrian ramp that hooks into the Walnut Street Bridge, inviting passersby onto a massive berm that slopes gracefully down to the main level of Penn Park 30 feet below.
For Matthew Urbanski, the landscape architect in Valkenburgh’s firm who came up with the notion of creating giant landforms to connect the low-lying park to the street level above, it was a “brainstorm” that “seemed like either a deal breaker or a great idea.”
For Gutmann, it became a linchpin of the whole plan.
“The only way we could genuinely make this welcoming to the community is to connect it to Walnut Street,” she said before the grand opening. “If it were only connected through our campus, yes, you could, if you were in the know, find a way of getting there—but you’d have to be in the know. This way, it says: Come stroll through a park and come into our campus. Even if you didn’t plan on doing it, we welcome you.”
During the latter years of the Postal Service’s occupancy, this parcel conveyed the exact opposite impression—one somewhere between repulsion and outright menace. “I remember it as not just a parking lot,” says Cohen, “but an ugly, dirty parking lot with broken-down vehicles parked there.”
Cohen also recalls that University trustees have been thinking about acquiring and transforming that real estate at least as far back as when Al Shoemaker W’60 Hon’95 chaired the board, beginning in the mid-1980s. When Ed Rendell C’65 Hon’00 became Philadelphia’s mayor in 1992, with Cohen as his chief of staff, then-Penn President Sheldon Hackney Hon’93 wasted no time in trying to enlist Rendell’s support.
“One of the first meetings that I remember was Sheldon coming in to meet with Ed and with me,” Cohen says. “He had little mini architectural plans and drawings—[though] not necessarily for a park.”
To the two alumni freshly in charge of the city, the idea seemed “audacious,” in Cohen’s recollection. “I don’t know that we saw any reality to it at the time. We didn’t think or know that the Postal Service was interested in selling. But it certainly showed some foresight by the University. And it stuck in our minds.”
The idea was still just that—an idea—nine years later when Cohen became a University trustee. But the landscape had shifted. The Postal Service was on the cusp of building a modern mail-sorting facility near the airport that would render its 1935 building on the banks of the Schuylkill between Market and Chestnut streets obsolete.
Nevertheless, acquiring the land remained a daunting prospect. Though the USPS was ready to sell, it wanted the entire tract of land—the historic building, the adjacent truck-terminal annex, plus the open tract between the Walnut and South Street bridges—included in the purchase. But Penn didn’t want the historic building.
“It’s a million square feet,” observes Penn executive vice president Craig Carnaroli W’85. “It would have taken anywhere between $5 million and $10 million [a year] just to maintain it,” and a great deal more to overhaul the interior for whatever tenants could be found to occupy all that space.
Then there was concern about whether Penn could meet the price—a figure not released publicly but estimated in news reports to be around $50 million—as well as the cost of subsequently developing 14 acres of what was essentially industrial brownfield in a flood zone.
“It began to be a bit of a joke,” Cohen says. “I mean, if you think about it, it took 15 years to make an offer.”
Nevertheless, “there was unanimity that if you could gain control of this real estate, it was something the University had to do,” he adds. “Particularly if it was going to be sold, how could you let someone else buy it, and seal off that development opportunity in the future? There’s no way as trustees that we wanted to see that land go to another developer.”
After the University’s offer was accepted in 2004, it took another three years to actually close on the land. To acquire the undeveloped portion without being saddled with the buildings, Penn welcomed Brandywine Realty, a publicly traded real-estate investment trust, into the transaction. The University bought the entire parcel, then immediately turned around and sold the historic building to Brandywine—which, as a for-profit entity, could make use of the associated historic-preservation tax credits resulting from its estimated $265 million rehabilitation of the structure. Brandywine’s tenant for the building is the Internal Revenue Service, which accepted a 20-year lease in a deal that kept 5,100 workers in Philadelphia after the agency shuttered its old facility in the northeast section of the city.
Brandywine also signed a 90-year ground lease with Penn for the adjacent annex facility between Chestnut and Walnut streets, with the understanding that it would be replaced by a parking garage (which Brandywine has done) and then a mixed-use development incorporating office space, street-level retail, and possibly residential and hotel components (which it has yet to do).
At the end of the day on August 31, 2007, the University at long last had a campus that stretched all the way to the Schuylkill River.
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See a slideshow of photos from Penn Park Field Day on September 17,
| ©2011 The Pennsylvania
Last modified 10/28/11