U. of Pennsylvania to build hotel and commercial hub Sansom Common, Perelman Quadrangle to change face of area


PHILADELPHIA - Nearly 30 years after its last major construction project added dormitories, the student bookstore and a new research center, the University of Pennsylvania is in the midst of two major building and renovation projects that will again reshape its campus.

One of them, called Sansom Common, will include in its first phase a 250-room hotel, shops and a new bookstore at an estimated cost of $73 million. The site is at the heart of the campus on a block bounded by Walnut, Sansom, 36th and 37th streets that for years has been a 2-acre parking lot.

The second phase will include the creation of a new north-south street linking the hotel entrance to Chestnut Street, a major artery leading to downtown Philadelphia.

University officials are now considering proposals for the block between Sansom and Chestnut streets to add townhouses and retail space, renovate existing high-rise dormitories and add retail space. The total budget for Sansom Common is $120 million.

The other project, Perelman Quadrangle, consists of $62 million in improvements to 19th-century academic buildings and pathways and lawns between them near the corner of 34th and Spruce streets. The area will include a plaza or amphitheater area that will be used for gatherings.

"These projects will shape Penn as a residential community, particularly for undergraduates," said Judith Rodin, who became president of the university in 1993.

Significant for community

They also are significant in a wider urban context. The university, in West Philadelphia a mile west of downtown, is the city's largest private employer, with more than 25,000 workers at its campus and hospital. It is in an area where 72 percent of the residents are black and 20 percent are below the federal poverty level, according to the Philadelphia Planning Commission.

There are other educational institutions in the area, known as University City, including Drexel University, the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science and a satellite campus of Lincoln University.

The 260-acre Penn campus has only one street with a significant number of privately owned stores, said Judy Wicks, who has run the White Dog Cafe and Black Cat giftshop for 25 years.

Along Sansom Street, one block east of Sansom Common, there are about two dozen brick buildings with restaurants, cafes, pubs and an international newsstand. "It's important that the university have a commercial hub in the middle of the campus," Wicks said.

Planners say the first phase of Sansom Common will move the university in that direction. The cost of the hotel - the Inn at Penn - and the 55,000-square-foot bookstore and other stores - will be paid for through long-term contracts or leases with their operators. The hotel operator has yet to be designated.

Village atmosphere

Rodin predicted that the project would create the atmosphere of a European village with residences, shops, theaters and galleries. "It will give us the chance to reanimate Walnut Street, where there's more that goes on at night," she said.

The university spent $15 million in 1996 to acquire the University City Sheraton Hotel for use as temporary living quarters while dormitory renovations are under way.

The bookstore at Sansom Common, a Barnes & Noble operation scheduled to open in the fall of 1998, will have a cafe and a children's activity area. Once the Barnes & Noble store opens, the 50,000-square-foot campus bookstore at 38th Street and Locust Walk and several nearby stores may be demolished, possibly to be replaced by a 300,000-square-foot building to be used by the Wharton School, Penn's business and management institution.

The six-story, 190,000-square-foot hotel is scheduled to open in the fall of 1999, according to construction plans by LaSalle Partners of Chicago, the university's development manager. The hotel and bookstore have been designed by Elkus/Manfredi Architects Ltd. of Boston.

"The project itself has flown," said John Fry, the executive vice president at Penn, who is Sansom Common's project director. "We've gone from feasibility to construction in less than 12 months."

Retailers have been eager to reach the 22,000 students and thousands of people who work nearby, Fry said. But despite strong demand for stores, there are few sites on which to build more. The university's for-profit real-estate company, UCA Realty Group, has built retail space on Walnut Street since 1987, usually with offices or parking above. UCA Realty owns and operates more than 70 properties in West Philadelphia, 40 of them residential.

Until recently, colleges and universities viewed their campuses as islands separate from their host communities, but that attitude is changing, said Gregory Clement of Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates in New York, which has worked on projects for Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., and Baruch College in New York City.

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