Major zoning changes proposed for University City High School and surrounding areas

Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell introduced a bill Thursday that would allow Drexel University to build a new mixed-use development on a property at 38th Street and Powelton Avenue that currently houses the empty University City High School, Charles Drew Elementary School, and the Walnut Center.

The high school was closed at the end of last year, and the elementary school was closed the year before. Drexel was approved to buy the schools by the School District last month for more than $25 million.

Drexel has not released details about what it plans to do with the 14-acre site, but according to Blackwell’s bill, the project will entail education, research, retail, office, and residential uses.

Last fall, Drexel representatives indicated that they were considering relocating the nearby Powel Elementary School to the site and expanding its student body. Powel currently serves grades K-4, and the proposed expansion would bring in students in grades K-8. Blackwell’s bill says that the School District will “retain an option, for a period of five years, to build a new K-8 public school on the site.”

The bill also says that the project requires demolition of the existing buildings on the site to make way for 2.7 million square feet of new construction at a cost of nearly $1 billion to Drexel and its partner, Wexford Science and Technology. The development would eventually provide 3,700 permanent, full-time jobs.

University representatives did not return phone calls on Thursday.

The bill rezones the property to CMX-4, a high-density commercial mixed-use classification, and places it in a new “West Overlay District.” The overlay sets the maximum floor area ratio for the property at 750 percent. (Floor area ratio, or FAR, limits how big a building can be relative to the size of the property; a 50,000-square-foot building on 10,000-square-foot lot has an FAR of 500 percent.)

The overlay also caps the height of new construction at 75 feet near the street line, and up to 120 feet for portions set back from the street by 50 feet or more.

The development would also involve “significant above ground parking facilities,” according to the bill, and Blackwell’s proposed overlay exempts the property from zoning rules that would require the developer to receive special approval to build above-ground parking.

Blackwell also introduced two other zoning-related bills on Thursday.

One bill would amend Drexel’s Institutional District Master Plan to allow for the construction of a proposed 212-room hotel at the corner of 33rd and Chestnut streets. The proposal includes a restaurant and retail space on the ground floor.

Blackwell’s third bill makes a host of smaller changes to parcels located in the area surrounded by 45th, 50th, Spruce and Market streets. The bill rezones some small corner lots and mid-block parcels from multi-family residential zoning to single-family residential zoning.

The bill also appears to rezone the block between 47th, 48th, Walnut and Locust streets to CMX-3, for commercial use. That block is the site of the old West Philadelphia High School.*

Blackwell was not available Thursday afternoon to explain those zoning changes.

*Note: a previous version of this article said that the block in question is home to Henry C. Lea Elementary School. Lea Elementary is across the street. PlanPhilly regrets the error. 

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