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In January 2023, Penn began an $87.4 million project to renovate the west wing of College Hall. Credit: Jesse Zhang

Penn has filed at least 1,494 construction permits since 2007, according to an analysis by The Daily Pennsylvanian.

According to the data — which includes permits filed with the City of Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections — Penn is not filing as many construction permits on the western end of campus compared to previous years, while eastward construction has remained consistent over the past 16 years. The data helps demonstrate the impact of Penn Connects, a series of master plans published by the University in 2006, 2011, and 2018.

“Penn Connects is a land use and urban design strategy with a 30-year horizon to advance Penn as a premier urban research university," according to The Office of the Executive Vice President website.

The DP used data from the Department of Licenses and Inspections, which issues zoning permits for new construction and building permits for construction activity on existing structures. The data shows that there has been a 90% decrease in construction permits west of South University Avenue in 2023 compared to 2007 and 2015. There was only one permit filed west of the avenue in 2023, compared to 12 permits in 2015, and 11 in 2007.

Across the data, there is a high concentration of construction permits along 34th Street, near the center of campus. The number of permits east of 34th Street or east of the Schuylkill River has remained relatively consistent over the years: 10 permit locations were recorded in 2007, 11 in 2015, and six in 2023 so far. 

Along 34th Street and Walnut Street, permits are connected to major construction projects such as renovations to the West Wing of College Hall and the new Vagelos Laboratory for Energy Science and Technology

Further east, the University has filed construction permits connected to the Jane and David Ott Center for Track & Field, a University of Pennsylvania Hospital corporate office at 3600 Civic Center Blvd, and the ongoing redevelopment of the Pennovation Works, a 23-acre mixed-use University property on the east side of the river. 

A map of current construction on Penn's Division of Facilities and Real Estate Services website identifies four key construction sites, including 3600 Civic Center Blvd, Amy Gutmann Hall, the Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter, and the Vagelos Laboratory for Energy Science and Technology.

From a historical perspective, consistent eastward construction aligns with the strategies outlined in Penn Connects, which was first published in 2006. Penn Connects 2.0 was published in 2011, and Penn Connects 3.0 was published in 2018. 

Land acquisition played a large role in implementing the Penn Connects plan. For example, Penn purchased an 18-acre plot from the U.S. Postal Service in 2007 that was marked as "postal lands" on a map from the 2006 Penn Connects plan.

A map of Penn's east campus area from the Penn Connects 2006 Vision Plan Report (Map from Facilities & Real Estate Services).

“The acquisition of the land was one of the things that helped inspire creating a plan for Penn Connects,” University architect Mark Kocent told the DP.

An analysis of permits by year shows that Penn's construction permit filings reached an all-time high in 2014. There was a larger drop in total construction permits filed per year between 2019 and 2020, amounting to a 43% decrease. After the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an uptick in on-campus permits in 2021 and 2022. 

According to administrators from the University's Division of Facilities and Real Estate Services, these fluctuations may be attributed to stringent permit issuance restrictions and shifts in Penn's approach to construction during the pandemic. 

In addition, Director of Architecture and Planning in the Office of the University Architect Eva Lew said that Philadelphia switched to a new online permit platform around the same time of the national shutdown due to COVID-19.

“Penn decided to put some projects on the back burner that weren’t necessary to schools and centers — because we didn’t have people on campus, but also because the University as a whole was looking for ways to save money, and capital was one area they could do that," Penn Executive Director of Design and Construction Chris Kern said. 

While Penn is issuing fewer permits overall than before, it is spending more on capital spending, which peaked in 2017 and neared that all-time high this past fiscal year. Capital projects include renovations and new construction with estimated total costs of $100,000 or more, according to the Penn Division of Finance

Kocent said that the number of permits is not the "best or the only barometer" of how busy Penn is, citing how there are some years with fewer permits but "substantially larger" individual projects. 

Penn's construction permit filings have also taken place in the context of changing economic factors, shifting University priorities, and an evolving academic vision where projects have different sizes and strategic goals.

The 'permit type' variable in the data set was filtered down to building, zoning, demolition, alteration, and addition permits. These permit types generally correspond to new construction rather than maintenance construction.