Penn’s recently approved master plan envisions playing fields and green space where there are now parking lots; the transformation of Walnut Street’s “dead zone” into a mixed-use mecca; new housing, research, and athletic facilities—plus river views and a seamless connection between University City and Center City. By John Prendergast

“It is only possible for us to move to the next level of eminence if we have the space to do so,” Penn President Amy Gutmann is saying in her College Hall office. She’s talking about the University’s long-anticipated acquisition of the “postal lands”—24 acres east of campus bordering (almost) the Schuylkill River, currently occupied by the former main branch of the U.S. Post Office, a postal annex and associated maintenance buildings, and lots and lots of cracked asphalt and weedy patches—which is scheduled to become final this spring.

“If we were contained physically, we could not engage the way the Penn Compact aspires to engage,” she adds, referring to her program to increase access to the University, foster interdisciplinary research and teaching, and to engage locally and globally. “We need more housing for our students, we need teaching and research facilities, and if we’re going to continue to have the increasingly excellent relationship with our local community, we need to create an ever more vibrant presence, not only for Penn, but for West Philadelphia and Philadelphia.”

The added space will allow Penn to build needed academic and athletic facilities, while also creating more green space and recreational fields “not only for our students, but for the community as well,” she says. At the same time, the construction of new dormitories will bring students back to the campus core, opening “more opportunities for our neighbors, faculty, staff, and people unaffiliated with Penn, to have nice residential opportunities in West Philadelphia.”

On the table in front of Gutmann, along with some notes for our interview, are a couple of copies of a document titled Penn Connects: A Vision for the Future describing Penn’s new master plan for the east-campus development, approved by the trustees in June. That this “executive summary” is 25 pages long gives some idea of the scope of the project.

The product of 15 months of research and analysis by Penn planners and project consultants Sasaki Associates, with input from a wide range of University constituencies and building on a 2001 planning effort, the document lays out a “phased development strategy for the next 25-30 years.” (Interested readers can download a pdf of the document at

To take advantage of the ripple effect of an acquisition of this magnitude, planners also looked at ways the new space could affect future development of the existing campus—with particular attention to concentrating academic activities close to the historic core of the campus. Among the key elements:

Most of what are now surface parking lots (about 14 acres) will be replaced with major new athletic fields and passive green space, and the area around the Palestra and Franklin Field will be redeveloped into a plaza and promenade that will extend Locust Walk to the new fields and eventually—by way of a proposed pedestrian bridge—across the river to Center City.

Walnut Street between Center City and campus—variously described as a “void,” “dead zone,” or “industrial wasteland”—will be developed with a mix of retail, hotel/conference, residential, and office space, plus research and cultural facilities, lining what will become a striking new entrance to the campus.

The highly congested area around the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the medical campus south of Spruce Street will be improved with the addition of a major new green space where the Penn Tower now stands. Future medical expansion will also be provided for.

Taking advantage of the differential between the elevated streets at Walnut and South, some 4,600 parking spaces will be added in four garages built below the street level on the floodplain. The garages will form the base for new construction—likely to be commercial development on Walnut, and sports fields at South, adjacent to a reconstructed South Street Bridge. A variety of road improvements will provide access and ease traffic flow.

New construction proposed in the plan within the existing campus footprint includes a 350-bed college house on Hill Square added to Hill House to create a new quad; an approximately 100,000-square-foot facility for nanotechnology research adjacent to the Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter (LRSM) on what is now a parking lot on Walnut Street; and a new field house north of the Palestra on the current site of the Levy Tennis Pavilion. Further in the future, the plan contemplates potential future redevelopment of non-historic structures—such as the Franklin Building—to better consolidate academic activities in the heart of campus, with administrative functions relocated east.


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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 08/31/06

New Campus Dawning
By John Prendergast

Photography by Blll Cramer
Architectural renderings courtesy Sasaki Associates

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Park now, play later: Replacing asphalt with green space will be the first order of business when Penn takes ownership this spring.