A 14-acre, $3.5 billion neighborhood of glassy skyscrapers and manicured green spaces is slowly being built just west of 30th Street Station.
Dubbed Schuylkill Yards, the development is a partnership between Drexel University, which owns the land, and Brandywine Realty Trust, the Philly-based real estate giant that built the nearby Cira Center and FMC office towers.
Brandywine has so far completed one new building — a 28-story office, residential, and retail building on JFK Boulevard — and this week it held a “topping out” ceremony for a 12-story life science building that’s under construction on Market Street.
It has also renovated the historic Bulletin Building on Market Street near 30th into offices and lab space for Spark Therapeutics, and created an adjoining 1.3-acre public park, called Drexel Square.
When they announced the project in 2016, Drexel president John Fry and Brandywine CEO Jerry Sweeney described it as proof of the city’s economic vitality, as well as an opportunity for “inclusive development” that would directly benefit lower-income residents of surrounding West Philly neighborhoods like Mantua, West Powelton, and Belmont.
Fry has vowed not to “disrupt the fabric” of those neighborhoods. The developer is providing funding for community organizations and says it’s encouraging tenants to give work to local businesses.
But some residents and urban development experts say the eventual addition of potentially tens of thousands of new, well-paid professional workers will nonetheless lead to gentrification.
Here’s what to know about the plan for Schuylkill Yards, its progress over the past eight years, and the debate over its potential impact.
Boosting the university, with a nod to the community
Fry was previously an executive at the University of Pennsylvania, where in the late 1990s he helped oversee the school’s big initiative to improve University City and reduce crime. It transformed the area, but contributed to huge increases in home values and the loss of more than half of the neighborhood’s Black residents between 2000 and 2010.
After he became Drexel’s president in 2010, Fry set about trying to similarly improve its neighborhood while causing less harm.
The university opened a community center, changed its procurement rules to hire more local vendors, subsidized home purchases in the area for faculty and staff, and helped bring new businesses to vacant blocks. It launched an office building development called uCity Square, west of Drexel’s campus, funded a new public school called Science Leadership Academy Middle School, and built or renovated several school buildings.
Schuylkill Yards aims to continue that blend of private profit and community uplift, according to Fry and Sweeney, the real estate magnate. “Ambitious commercial development directly tied to a specific community agenda represents the best hope for an inclusive future for Philadelphia,” they wrote in 2016.
The development allows Drexel to generate millions of dollars for its endowment by leasing “underutilized” land for Brandywine to build on. The school also negotiated the option to use up to 10% of any Schuylkill Yards building at favorable rates. Drexel initially anticipated leasing offices and labs from Brandywine, and could potentially use other buildings for classroom space.
In addition to providing cash and space, the development was meant to boost Drexel’s profile, according to Keith Orris, who was the school’s senior vice president for corporate relations and economic development at time.
“We also shouldn’t underestimate the intangible benefits and goodwill this project brings,” he told a campus publication. “Inevitably, something of this size and ambition elevates Drexel’s stature… We believe this development will be a magnet for recruiting talented faculty and students.”
Visions of 40,000 new workers
The plan calls for construction of five buildings along Market and JFK Boulevard between 30th and 32nd streets. There’s also one renovation, of the former Philadelphia Bulletin newspaper HQ, which is already complete — it’s now home to Spark Therapeutics, a biosciences firm.
At full buildout there’s meant to be 3.9 million square feet of life science, innovation, and office space, according to Brandywine, as well as 1.5 million square feet of living spaces, 65,000 square feet of retail space, and 6.5 acres of parks and green space.
The completed 28-story West Tower at 3025 JFK got its first tenant, a law firm, last month, and in August renters began moving into the 326-apartment residential portion, called Avira. Brandywine hopes to finish the second new structure, the life sciences building at 3151 Market St., and start moving in tenants by early 2025.
Eventually the university wants to spruce up a drab section of JFK Boulevard that runs through the development. In the past it’s been used as a pickup and dropoff area for Bolt Bus and other bus companies. Orris said the road will be turned into “festival street” planted with trees and paved with stones to create a pedestrian friendly promenade that can be easily closed off for special events.
The overall project is expected to take decades to complete. In 2016, Sweeney said it would generate about 10,000 construction jobs, and the partners said the skyscrapers could eventually accommodate at least 40,000 high-paid workers.
In marketing the development to biomedical firms and other potential tenants, Brandywine points to its close proximity to universities and many healthcare institutions, and to I-76, Amtrak, and SEPTA stops and stations.
It also notes that all of Schuylkill Yards is a federal Qualified Opportunity Zone, which provides substantial tax benefits to investors in tenant companies, and that some of the properties are Keystone Opportunity Zones, which zero out most state and city taxes for occupant businesses over the period of designation.
Starts and stops along the way
Drexel and Brandywine originally wanted to create an even bigger Schuylkill Yards by capping part of the Amtrak railyard north of 30th Street station and extending the street grid over the tracks. But Sweeney told the Inquirer he dropped the idea because of the difficulty of building over the Northeast Corridor train line and the amount of time it would take.
The development has been described as an “insta-neighborhood” — one developer’s master-planned vision, along the lines of New York’s Hudson Yards — but actual construction has been anything but instantaneous.
Rather, Brandywine has had to adjust the project timeline due to economic headwinds, such as high interest rates that make project financing more expensive.
The first two new buildings were built “on spec,” without tenants already signed up. But construction of the next one, a planned 800,000 square foot East Tower at 3001 JFK Boulevard, is on hold until it’s 50% pre-leased, Sweeney told the Philadelphia Business Journal last month. In renderings it resembles a stack of three giant, misaligned cubes.
“That project is simply too big for us to take on in this kind of climate,” Sweeney said.
It’s also unclear when the remaining two planned buildings at 3051 JFK and 3101 Market might be built. Brandywine’s marketing materials describe them as future lab developments.
Help for the community, but is it enough?
The Schuylkill Yards project includes a $16.4 million neighborhood engagement program to help create jobs for area residents, build affordable housing, boost local and minority business development, and fund civic group capacity building, according to Brandywine.
Part of that came through a 15-year community benefits agreement the company negotiated with the Mantua-Powelton Alliance, a coalition of neighborhood groups, as it sought City Council approval of needed zoning changes.
The alliance received $3.1 million over five years to use for affordable housing, foreclosure prevention, school programs and workforce-development grants.
Brandywine also promised to subsidize contracts that its tenants sign with local businesses and to penalize its contractors that don’t meet hiring diversity goals. It pledged $500,000 in seed capital for a low-interest loan program for minority-owned businesses, $675,000 to a building trades apprenticeship program, and $750,000 for community benefit corporations that are its co-developers on Schuylkill Yards building projects.
Fry, the university president, has argued there are differences between the neighborhoods near Drexel and those that were affected by Penn’s earlier initiative. He says the presence of strong community development corporations means areas like Mantua and Powelton shouldn’t experience the same degree of massive resident displacement.
But while community activists say Drexel and Brandywines’ efforts are helpful, they remained worried about the future of their neighborhoods nevertheless.
As tens of thousands of well-paid white professionals start working in Schuylkill Yards, they will begin looking for homes nearby, residential developers will buy out longtime residents and property owners, and home prices will jump, steamrolling the CDCs’ neighborhood preservation efforts, they predicted.
James Wright, the former director of community, economic and real estate development at affordable housing builder People’s Emergency Center, now known as HopePHL, said the university’s priority is to create a good experience for students rather than for neighborhood residents.
“The truth is, Drexel is a business, you know?” Wright said in 2018. “They have a bottom line that is different from the community.”