Brandywine Realty sitting pretty as it continues Philadelphia redevelopment

Monday, November 9, 2015

Originally published at philly.com


Brandywine Realty sitting pretty as it continues Phila. redevelopment

Brandywine Realty Trust is putting open space on a pedestal in University City. Literally.

The developer unveils Monday its Cira Green plaza, a 1.25-acre, publicly accessible expanse of grass and paved walkways atop a 95-foot-high parking structure just west of the Schuylkill.

Its opening marks the latest chapter in Brandywine's bid to remake a huge swath of central Philadelphia around 30th Street Station - an area bordering the campus of Drexel University up to the riverbanks opposite the Philadelphia Museum of Art - as the once-suburban company solidifies its urban presence.

The redevelopment "could be one of the largest-scale real estate undertakings in the United States," Brandywine chief executive Jerry Sweeney said. "If you imagine what the city could look like in 10 years, it's completely different from what it looks like today."

The plaza-topped parking structure sits within a site Brandywine calls Cira South, between Evo, its 33-story student-focused apartment tower, and the 49-story FMC Tower it is constructing as headquarters for the chemicals giant.

The $13 million Cira Green, which offers panoramic views of the Center City skyline, will be open to all via elevator, and Evo residents will have direct access from the eighth floor of their building. Workers in some of the FMC Tower's upper-story offices and occupants of the building's high-end dwellings above will be able to peer down at the plaza.

Matt Bergheiser, executive director of the University City District business association, likened the approach to his group's streetscape-improvement efforts, including the Porch at 30th Street, a dining area beside the train station.

"It's taking an asset that maybe people hadn't thought of and thinking about it differently," Bergheiser said. "It's creating a unique space."

The plaza's debut comes about 10 years after Brandywine completed Cira Centre, its first 30th Street Station-area building. When the developer began work on the Cesar Pelli-designed structure on property secured from Amtrak in 2001, its holdings were limited to suburbs ringing Philadelphia, such as its headquarters' Radnor environs.

Since then, Brandywine has snapped up seven trophy high-rises in the city, making it the city's biggest office landlord.

Its ongoing work around 30th Street Station, meanwhile, has benefited from the area's designation as a Keystone Opportunity Zone, which gives companies with offices there breaks on some city and state taxes in return for creating jobs or making large investments. Brandywine's projects include redevelopment of a former post office distribution plant into government offices and construction of the Evo and FMC projects where a postal annex building once stood.

The Cira Green site, on a floodplain and over train tracks, could not have accommodated underground parking for the new residents and office workers. Instead, Brandywine built the 1,600-parking-space structure and capped it with the green roof.

But Cira Green doesn't cap Brandywine's ambitions for the area. The company also is a partner in a $5.25 million planning study into the future of 175 acres between Walnut and Spring Garden Streets that could involve a massive new development over the expansive rail yards east of Drexel's campus.

The "30th Street Station District Plan" participants - which include Amtrak and Drexel, among others - are set to unveil in December their latest outline for what would be a dense new neighborhood of homes and offices over the yards, said Natalie Shieh, the plan's project director.

"It's a great benefit to have Brandywine as a partner," Shieh said. "Their vision, paired with their experience of actually getting projects off the ground, is just of tremendous value to our planning study."

Brandywine also submitted a proposal to lead development of Drexel's "Innovation Neighborhood," the university's plan to develop 12 acres it owns, mostly between 30th and 32d Streets and from Market Street to the rail yards, Sweeney said.

That land sits next to 25,000 square feet owned by Brandywine behind 30th Street Station, where a Cira II had once been planned.

If Brandywine is awarded the contract, that parcel could be incorporated into its overall scheme for the project, which would include offices, labs, university buildings, dormitories, and shops, Sweeney said.

Drexel spokeswoman Niki Gianakaris said the university would not comment on the project during its developer-selection process. She could not give a completion date for it.

Said Sweeney: "Whether it's Brandywine or someone else, the Innovation Neighborhood will be successful. It has all the ingredients for that. And it's only going to make everything we've already invested in better."

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