Growing Drexel

April 14, 2008 6:11:33 PM PDT
Drexel University is embarking on an ambitious $500 million campus construction plan this week, a vision that aims to give the private urban college a stronger identity and higher national profile.

The school is scheduled to break ground on a new dormitory Tuesday and to announce a long-term lease for a National Guard armory, which it plans to turn into a basketball arena.

"We're a different, better university than we were a dozen years ago," Drexel President Constantine Papadakis said in an e-mailed statement. "And we need a different, better campus."

If fully built, the five-year master plan for the West Philadelphia school would feature 10 projects - including two dorms, two athletic centers and four academic buildings - plus a privately developed hotel/conference center.

Combined with a multibillion-dollar building plan by the neighboring University of Pennsylvania, Drexel's construction would also give the University City neighborhood a better connection to downtown, which is just across the Schuylkill River, said school and city officials.

"We regard it as just a very exciting opportunity for the future, linking up these two major areas of the city," said Gary Jastrzab, acting executive director of the Philadelphia Planning Commission.

This school year has already been a big one for Drexel, a one-time commuter school that has steadily raised its enrollment, endowment and profile since Papadakis took over in 1995.

Drexel hosted a debate for the Democratic presidential candidates in the fall, followed by the U.S. Olympic table tennis team tryouts in January. A month later, its two-year-old law school received provisional accreditation.

Yet perhaps the university's biggest news was an announcement it might establish a second campus in California's Placer County, near Sacramento.

The proposal is still in the exploratory stages, Drexel spokesman Phil Terranova said. But the university has already created a $1 million "Build the Pipeline" scholarship fund exclusively for Sacramento-area residents, offering $10,000 annual grants for qualified students to enroll at the Philadelphia campus.

Terranova noted the university's board of trustees is expected to vote next month on a plan to enter the California market by offering master's courses at a downtown Sacramento site. It's a move welcomed by some Placer County officials.

"We embrace the idea of them coming here," county Supervisor F.C. "Rocky" Rockholm said last week.

Some students at the Philadelphia campus, however, are concerned that the business-minded Papadakis is creating a franchise - that "Drexel will just become a brand as opposed to an academic institution," said Noah Cohen, editor of the school's independent student newspaper, The Triangle.

He also said students wonder if the Philadelphia campus will be shortchanged as Drexel focuses on the West Coast.

Cohen, a 21-year-old senior, said he sees the second campus proposal as evidence that Drexel degrees are in demand. And the scope of the school's master plan would seem to indicate a commitment to Philadelphia.

He noted new construction and events such as the presidential debate have created a buzz at Drexel, leading to students being more engaged in campus life.

"There's an energy here that I don't think existed in the past," Cohen said.

On Tuesday, Drexel is slated to announce a 50-year lease - with two 20-year renewal options - for a major portion of the armory owned by the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

Drexel will lease the drill hall and convert it into a long-planned convocation center/sports arena by 2012, said James Tucker, senior vice president for student life and administrative services.

The state will retain a small area where the 103rd Engineer Battalion is based, and Drexel will kick in half of the $12 million being spent to renovate that space, said Mark Austin, director of facilities and engineering for the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

Also this week, Drexel will begin work on a $42 million residence hall slated to open in August 2009. A ceremonial groundbreaking is set for next month for the 17-story building, which will have 482 beds, Tucker said.

All projects in the master plan, if built, will be financed through an equal mixture of bonds, donations and operating revenue, Tucker said.

The school currently has about 13,000 undergraduates and 7,000 graduate students. The master plan anticipates an additional 1,000 students, Tucker said.


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