PlanPhilly

Deal reached on University City High School

Drexel University reached a deal with Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell’s office and several community groups over the zoning of the 14-acre parcel housing the former University City High School Thursday morning.

The parties were negotiating in the hallway outside City Council chambers until just minutes before a deal was reached and the bill was amended by a Council vote.

Under the terms of the amendments, new development on the site can not be built higher than 65 feet for the first 50 feet of depth along the south side of Warren Street, across from some three-story rowhomes, and for the first 10 feet of depth along some other edges of the property. The initial draft of the bill had set the height limit for those portions of the property at 75 feet.

More importantly, the deal also includes a Community Benefits Agreement and a “Framework for Guiding Principles between the Community, Drexel University, and Wexford Development.”

If an agreement hadn’t been reach on Thursday, the sale of the building may have been in jeopardy. The $25 million sale to Drexel is scheduled to close on Monday. Council’s last session before summer break is next Thursday, at which point the bill is likely to pass.

“I think we’ve done reasonably well,” said Michael Jones, president of Powelton Village Civic Association, after the deal was reached. “… We’ve got a process of design review for individual buildings on the site that the community will be involved with. We don’t have veto power or anything but we will be involved with buildings as they’re designed.”

Jones also said the agreement would limit the number of parking structures that could be built on the site and require that certain of them be wrapped in active uses. In addition, Jones said the agreement extends the amount of time set aside for the potential development of a K-8 public school. The initial bill set the property aside for 5 years; the agreement extends it to 7 years.

“I am very relieved that it’s done,” Jones said. “I’m exhausted.”

Neither Paul Boni, an attorney representing Powelton Village Civic Association, nor Peter Kelsen, who represents Drexel University, was willing to make the Community Benefits Agreement document public on Thursday. But according to their descriptions, the agreement contains a host of provisions:

  • An advisory group will be established with representatives of the local Registered Community Organizations and Councilwoman Blackwell’s office. As Drexel and Wexford begin site planning, the planning firm will have “collaborative and iterative” consultations with the advisory group.

  • As the $1 billion development is expected to take years to complete, Drexel has agreed to keep clean any undeveloped portions of the site during the interim. It has also agreed to leave in place any mature trees in the interim and to make attempts—no commitment—to incorporate mature trees into the final design of the project.

  • If it’s not overly expensive, the owners will also provide public green space during the development interim.

  • No more than 30 percent of the site will be used for surface parking during the development interim.

  • Drexel has agreed to establish neighborhood-serving retail uses on Lancaster Avenue and Powelton Avenue. The developers will make efforts to attract a community bank with extended office hours to occupy part of the site.

  • The developers will offer seminars and courses to area contractors on the process for getting insurance certification and meeting bond requirements, prerequisites for working on city projects and most major development projects. The goal of this provision is to increase the number of local and minority contractors working on the development.

  • The owners will extend 37th Street north at least to Filbert Street across the site, a "superblock" that currently breaks up the city grid. They may attempt to extend it to Market Street.

  • No more than four buildings on the site—two for Drexel and two for Wexford—will have parking structures built into their lower floors. The site will also contain one standalone parking garage, and two sides of that garage will be shielded, top to bottom, in residential or commercial uses. None of the parking space will front on Powelton or Lancaster Avenue.

  • Any residential uses on the site won’t be geared toward undergraduate students.

  • The total development size is not expected to be larger than 2.7 million square feet. But if it is, a donation equal to 1 percent of the cost of any construction beyond that 2.7 million square feet will be given to local public schools. (The construction cost for this purpose is calculated as the shell and core of the building, not the cost of the tenant’s construction.)

Peter Kelsen said the agreement was a “great collaborative effort” and that the CBA document could be made public soon.

“It’s a very fair and solid agreement for both parties,” Kelsen said.


About the author

Jared Brey, Zoning and development reporter

Jared Brey writes about development, zoning policy, and city government for PlanPhilly.com. He wasn't interested in being a reporter until halfway through a master's program in journalism at Temple University that he intended to parlay into an academic career. His work has appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News, City Paper, Business Journal, and Metropolis. 

Jared grew up in Montgomery County and moved to Philadelphia in 2005. He has since lived in Brewerytown, the Italian Market, North Central, Bella Vista, and East Passyunk. He believes he will stay in South Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @jaredbrey, or send him tips at jbrey@planphilly.com.


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