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The new facility boasts 12 outdoor courts and it will be a venue that attracts many recruits.

Credit: Alexandra Fleischman

In 2007, it was little more than a run-down, nondescript parking lot.

But four years and $46.5 million later, the land that used to be one of University City’s “greatest eyesores” is set to become “one of Penn’s greatest assets,” Penn President Amy Gutmann said.

Penn Park, a 24-acre open space that combines traditional collegiate athletic facilities with casual recreation opportunities, will officially open on Thursday evening.

Along with Penn alumni including Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Board of Trustees Chairman David Cohen, Gutmann will be at the park Thursday to mark the beginning of what she called a “historic day for the University of Pennsylvania.”

“Where you’d once look to the left while going west [on Walnut Street] and see urban blight … you’re now going to see a beautiful, 24-acre park,” Gutmann said. “It’s a hugely transformational sign.”

Putting the pieces together

The story of that transformation, though, has required more than four years of the University’s time and financial resources.

In August 2007, Penn finalized a deal with the U.S. Postal Service to purchase the 14-acre parking lot that would later became Penn Park — along with an old post office building and a truck terminal annex — for $50.6 million.

The University soon added 10 acres of its own undeveloped property to the park’s construction.

That same day, Penn sold back the post office building to Radnor, Pa.-based developer Brandywine Realty Trust, which paid the University $28 million. Since then, Brandywine Realty Trust has begun leasing the building to the Philadelphia headquarters of the Internal Revenue Service.

The funds Penn generated from the Brandywine Realty Trust deal were put toward the construction of Penn Park, Gutmann said.

Once the University made the initial $50.6 million purchase, “it was always our goal to sell [back] the main post office building,” Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli wrote in an email.

Carnaroli, who played a key role in the land acquisition, added that Penn Park will enliven the gateway to the University and send a positive message to those visiting campus.

During the park’s construction, the University used $25 million for the design of open spaces, bridges and pathways, according to Anne Papageorge, vice president for Facilities and Real Estate Services. The construction of Penn Park’s athletic facilities cost an additional $17 million, and the park’s support facilities — including utility buildings, parking and maintenance — required $4 million, she added.

Although Penn’s financial resources covered a large portion of the construction, the University still had to rely heavily on alumni and donor support to complete the project.

“This is something that would have been impossible to do without outside help,” said Athletic Director Steve Bilsky, whose office helped lead the fundraising charge. “When we started this, we said, ‘let’s not just do it, let’s do it great.’”

In addition to receiving three separate “healthy seven-figure gifts” from alumni for various construction projects, Bilsky said Penn Athletics supporters and other alumni contributed generously to an $18-million fundraising campaign that spanned the past few years.

1970 Wharton graduate James Dunning, whose multimillion-dollar donation will help fund Penn Park’s Dunning-Cohen Champions’ Field and Seasonal Air Structure, said his decision to contribute to the project was “for the former Quakers, the current Quakers and the future Quakers.”

After watching his two sons — both Penn graduates and former athletes at the University — practice in what he called “substandard facilities,” Dunning felt he needed to act.

In order to give Penn “an equal playing field to compete with schools like Princeton,” he said he turned his attention to creating a space in which outdoor teams could practice year-round.

Later this semester, the Dunning-Cohen field will feature a seasonal dome-like air structure that covers a synthetic turf field.

While most of the park’s larger playing fields have already been sponsored by individual alumni, there are “many fundraising and Penn Park naming opportunities that we’re still looking to get,” said John Zeller, vice president for Development and Alumni Relations.

That fundraising will likely continue over the next few years, he added.

Looking ahead

Though Penn Park officially broke ground in November 2009, it is part of the University’s larger urban design project, “Penn Connects — A Vision for the Future,” launched in June 2006. The 30-year development plan will cost an estimated $1.94 billion.

The project, Carnaroli wrote, is part of a larger effort to create stronger links between Penn and Center City.

“[It’s] important for our institution to have gained access to this land which is contiguous to our campus, as there is value in our being able to control the use of a large piece of land so close to our campus,” he added. “It speaks volumes about having a long-term vision.”

Gutmann also expects Penn Park to be an investment that will pay off in big ways.

When prospective students come to visit campus, she hopes they might “subconsciously decide they like Penn over some place else because … they’ll be wowed by what they see.”

However, Steven Goodman, an educational consultant with Top Colleges and a 1989 Graduate School of Education masters in education recipient, expressed doubt over whether Penn Park will prove to be a major recruitment tool for future students.

“I’m not sure if you can point to one specific thing like Penn Park that’s going to lead a student to become interested in Penn,” he said. “But generally speaking, I think it will help the University in the long run.”

Regardless, Gutmann is looking forward to Thursday’s opening as the start of a new chapter in the University’s history.

“It’s a first for Penn to set aside a huge amount of space for recreation and green space, and I know once we open it students are going to stream in and community members are going to use it, as well,” she said. “It’s a win for students and faculty, a win for Penn and a great win for our city.”

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