Wednesday, March 2, 2016

University City's Academic Turf War

As University City continues to redefine the city's skyline, one of its most lackluster additions might also be one of its most divisive. Bohlin Cywinski Jackson's New College House spans the 3300 block of Chestnut Street. Instead of building up, the space-saving alternative that Drexel has recently embraced, New College House drones dully through a former lawn as if to deliberately divide the Ivy League university from Drexel to the north.

Whether that was the building's intent, Dr. Amy Gutman, Penn President, might be the only one who knows for sure. It's a fair assumption considering the former lawn's central position between both campuses. Once enjoyed by both Penn and Drexel students, New College House could have been doubled in height to save half of the lawn. Instead it builds a wall against Drexel's massive expansion pushing into Chestnut.  

It looks as though a high-priced academic turf war is taking place on what now houses Philadelphia's most expensive real estate, with Penn's conservatively low-rise, brick-and-mortar bumping up against Drexel's sky scraping, modern delights.   

Whether an architectural rivalry truly exists in University City is anyone's guess, but Drexel is gearing up to change the way we think of the American campus. Drexel's departure from their aging brutalism with a modern, and ironically soothing interpretation of the same style, has been a welcome change for a campus consistently ranked amongst the nation's ugliest. Drexel may not be competing with Penn, but with its own past. For decades its orange brick and harsh lines sidled up to the classical curves and lush lawns of Penn's campus, traditional tokens synonymous with the Ivy League. 

We've gotten a sneak-peak of what's to come from Drexel in the last few years, but the transformation officially began today with Drexel President John Fry's announcement that Brandywine Realty Trust will be heading up an ambitious project to house a growing student population in an integrated and urban fashion. 

Dubbed Schuylkill Yards, Drexel's expansion will tap into the underutilized space surrounding 30th Street Station, blending updated incarnations of existing infrastructure with modern infill. Taking a page from the city's most innovative endeavor, the Navy Yard, a development that borrows heavily from the workplace philosophies throughout the Silicon Valley, Drexel isn't just expanding their university up and out, they're fostering an environment for innovation. 

The term "mixed-use" is thrown around so often it's almost meaningless, and often leaves us with parking podiums and empty storefronts. Where it's worked most in Philadelphia has been in University City, specifically amongst Drexel's recent developments. Walking along Chestnut Street, it's very apparent that there's a college somewhere in the mix, but at its heart, it's the city. Walnut Street, on the other hand, clearly belongs to Penn. To walk Walnut is to walk through the heart of a campus. 

Drexel's plan is smart. Its absence of collegiate isolation doesn't just attract retail to its mixed use element, but it's inviting technology firms, medical labs, and a student experience integrated with neighboring colleges, even the city's school district. 

Penn will always have a place alongside the historic greats - Harvard, Princeton, and Yale - but the relevance of that position is changing. As tuition costs soar, prospective students are taking a closer look at their postgraduate opportunities and what employers are looking for. Law firms and traditional employers still eye the Ivy League for buttoned up recruits, but for more innovative corporations like Google, Apple, even our own Comcast, it's quickly becoming less about where you went and more about what you did there. Playing a role in that place has become a huge component of a successful education, an integrated component that Penn hasn't grasped or is too arrogant to admit. 

In the 1990s, graduates who didn't land their ideal career simply went back to school and Van Wildered it through degree after degree, and twenty years later, many of them are finally paying off their loans. With today's cost of education, that luxury is gone, but universities like Drexel are replacing it with another. Students are now analyzing what it takes to land their backup jobs, and looking for educations that either place them in positions before they graduate or teach them how to create their own. 

As Penn continues to dominate as the region's premier, traditional education, Drexel is charging into the future of academia, a future where students are not merely offered an education, but also trained on the realities of a postgraduate world and what it takes to own it. Drexel is giving their students a place to grow after they graduate right here in Philadelphia. 

Penn's turning out doctors and lawyers, but Drexel is graduating students who will invent the next Google or Tesla. If a turf war is unfolding in University City, Drexel is winning by not merely carbon copying what worked for Penn once upon a time, but by building better to create what works for the future. 

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