Room to grow

Text by Tim Hyland
Steve Bilsky, director of athleticsPhoto credit: Candace diCarlo

Steve Bilsky has seen Penn change dramatically since the days when he was playing point guard, and earning All-Ivy honors, for the Quaker basketball team.

Campus has grown up and out, University City has been revitalized, and Penn has earned a rightful reputation for championing great design and grand projects. Still, in all of that time, and through all the improvements, one thing hasn’t changed: The University has never had enough athletic fields or recreational facilities.

“We have had designs on these areas that go back at least 30 years,” says Bilsky, W’71, who has served as Penn’s director of athletics since 1994. “These things have always been a priority since the time I was a student here in the late 60s and early 70s. Every five years or so somebody would come up with a plan, but to this day, none of them have actually happened.”

At long last, however, change is on its way.

The Penn Connects plan that figures to so tremendously change Penn in years to come includes several high-profile projects that will finally address those long-standing needs in athletics and recreation—new fields, tennis courts, expansive parks, a fitness center and more. When completed, these projects—which will stretch from 33rd Street to the recently purchased postal lands along the Schuylkill River—will not only offer Penn’s student-athletes some of the best facilities in the Ivy League, but also open up new recreational opportunities for everyone else on campus.

These vast new green spaces and advanced athletic facilities will extend campus eastward, toward Center City, and bring new vibrancy to areas that are now basically left empty and unused.

It’s a landmark project—one that Bilsky has been waiting on for four decades. But now, he’s confident to say that it’s finally going to happen.

“We purchased this land, and we didn’t purchase it to sit on it,” Bilsky says. “We purchased it to do something with it.”

Q. Can you give us an update on where we are right now?
We are doing this over several phases, because the project is so vast that it would be impossible from a facilities and development standpoint to do it all at once. But that’s actually turned out to be a real blessing for us, as it’s allowed these projects to be refined and adjusted, and with each evolution of these projects, we’ve come out with better projects in the end. It’s been very fortunate that we’ve been able to spend some time and adjust things and resolve some issues because, in the end, I think we’ll have a much better product for everybody. The whole issue—the whole essence of this—is that it’s merging the priorities of the institution, which are eastward expansion and development of the postal properties, with some long term needs that athletics and recreation have had. It’s a perfect combination of us working together on something that will support the institution and campus vibrancy at the same time.

Q. What is planned for Phase I?
A. The first phase consists of the development of the northern end of Franklin Field, which is the area that faces the tennis courts right now. That project, for which an architect has already been hired, will be the first thing to get done. It’s going to combine a new intercollegiate weight room with another fitness center that will complement the Pottruck Center. The good news about Pottruck is that it’s been so successful that it’s met a lot of the demand. But as demand continues to grow, we’re looking to have a satellite fitness center which won’t be as big as Pottruck, but will cater to a lot of people who are down on this end of campus—Health System employees and the people who frequent this part of campus much more often. There will also be some kind of retail element, as we imagine there will be more and more people frequenting this part of campus. We might do something along the lines of a juice bar or a coffee shop. So that’s the first phase and it’s being designed right now with idea of construction finishing up sometime in the summer of 2009.

Q. What other elements will begin moving forward soon?
A. Another is called Penn Park, and it’s part of the development of the postal properties. This is also a significant advance. Penn Park is going to be just what it sounds like it will be: A park-like setting that will enable athletics and recreation to address some of the needs we’ve had for a long period of time now. We’re going to create several kinds of fields. Some of them will be synthetic, with lighting so they can be used morning, noon and night. One of the fields will also have some kind of all-season structure put around it so it can be used in inclement weather, which will give it the feel and essence of a field house, but without the permanent structure. There will also be some grass fields. There will be some neat things like sand volleyball courses and ropes courses, with the idea here that this area can be a vibrant area that will be used by a lot of people. All of these things and places will have flexible uses so they can be used for more than only one activity. Then the University is going to build something called Palestra Green, which will be like College Green, but right in front of the Palestra. Obviously when that’s done they’ll need to replace the tennis courts. So we’ll build 12 new outdoor courts down in the Penn Park area as well. Penn Park is basically going to be a multi-use, very flexible, very vibrant area—it won’t be just fields, because you’ll also have a sense you’re in a park-like setting, which is where the name comes from.

Q. Can you tell me more about Palestra Green?

It’s going to be like a park, with a College Green kind of look. This is a place where green space is needed. Certainly you can imagine, as the population is moving down closer to the river, that people might be walking down Locust Walk, all the way through campus, and then entering this really nice, green, park-like area where people can sit and throw Frisbees and do the things you do in a park. That will then lead into what these postal properties will ultimately look like. That’s all Phase I, and it’s obviously all major projects, so that’s going to keep us busy the next couple of years.

Q. Tell me about the specs on the new workout facility for Penn athletes, as well as the new fitness center that will be part of the Franklin Field Pavilion project.

Our current [intercollegiate] facility is in Franklin Field, and it’s probably about 5,000 square feet. To give you a sense of the new one, it will be three or four times bigger than that, which will allow many more people to use it, but will also give them a better facility. And because it’s being built as part of the new Franklin Field Pavilion, it will overlook this new Palestra Green, and it will be very aesthetically pleasing as well, just as Pottruck is. When you walk past Pottruck, you look up and it’s a neat looking building. That will be the case with this new Franklin Field Pavilion, too—it will be neat looking as well as functional. As for the new fitness center, it will probably be about 6,000 or 7,000 square feet. So it won’t be nearly as big as Pottruck, but it will cater more to that early-morning workout crowd, or the lunchtime crowd, the people who get in there for 35 or 40 minutes, get a quick workout and then are on their way.

Q. Let’s move on to Phase II. What’s the plan for that?

Phase 2 will be about the renovation of the Palestra and the Hutchinson building, because while both of those buildings are still very vibrant, they are in need of an update. This will not only include the updating of facilities, but also adding some programmatic space that is needed … for intramural sports, wrestling, gymnastics, fencing. We’re also looking at a whole squash component. There will be improvements to the Palestra, which is still a good facility and very important for the University.

Q. I imagine some people are going to read about improvements to the Palestra and get nervous. What exactly will you be changing?

Any improvements will be more along the lines of cosmetic improvements and amenities, and possibly the addition of air conditioning. Hutchinson and the Palestra are currently not air-conditioned, and so their usage falls off dramatically in the summer. This is an opportunity to extend the life of the building and give it more use. We’re not going to change the fundamental essence of the Palestra. We’d never do that.

Q. How badly are these facilities needed?

We’re talking here about both intercollegiate athletics and intramural sports. We’ve talked to a vast number of people who are either displaced or disenfranchised—they can’t play at all. When you have limited facilities like we have, you have teams that practice well into the evening and into the nighttime. You have some areas, like intramurals especially, where people don’t have opportunities at all. … We’ve heard stories where there’s softball teams out there that want to play ball, but they can’t, because there’s nowhere to play. Six tennis courts for a university our size is certainly not enough. So with these new developments, we’re not only improving the situation for the present users, but also opening up opportunities for a lot of people who have never even gotten the chance to play at all. That’s the exciting thing about this. We can do some things now, with more facilities and better use of technology, so the surfaces we use are maintained better. We’ll have lighting. One of the fields will have the open-air structure that will allow us to use it in the winter. We’ll have days like today, when there are very few people outside playing, where we can have the indoor facility and be playing morning, noon and night. That’s really what this is about—giving intercollegiate teams more reasonable opportunities, and also opening up more opportunities for recreation as well.

Q. Do you have a sense of how important these kinds of facilities are to prospective students?

We think it’s a big consideration. If you look at Pottruck Center alone, we have over 16,000 members there. That’s students, faculty and staff. So we know that there is tremendous demand, but even that demand has kind of surprised us. That satisfaction level has been very high with that building, which is why we think we need to create another fitness center, because demand continues to grow. We know that demand is there and, if we do this right, we think we’ll not only be meeting that demand, but we’ll be doing it with a very first-class environment, which is very important to us.

We think that’s going to make a difference when students choose schools. They visit here and they do ask us, “Where do you work out?” “Where’s the gym?” “What are the fitness activities?” Athletes especially will look for those facilities, and they’ll be comparing them against at least the other Ivies, and even the Penn States of the world. If our facilities are not up to snuff, they can like everything else about our university, but they’ll consider other options. This will allow us to be more competitive.

Q. Looking further ahead, there is a Phase III component to this as well, correct?

Yes, it’s a little bit longer-range, but we plan to create an indoor track center and a new indoor swimming facility. Those are priorities as well, but with the extent of all of this, and the cost of all of this, you need time to [plan]. The sooner we can finish Phases I and II, then we’ll be able to focus more on these two developments, but they’re very important as well.

Q. I imagine Penn’s coaches are pretty excited about these projects.

Yes. But coaches and athletes—they want these things immediately. They hear these things are happening and their timing is, ‘The sooner, the better.’ But between raising the money and designing these facilities and actually constructing them, it takes a couple of years to do it. But the excitement is brewing and I think when that first project comes on the board, there’s going to be a tremendous amount of momentum. People will actually see it, and they’ll be impressed by it, and that will bode well for future developments as well.

Q. This must be an exciting time for you.

It’s a tremendously exciting time, especially for somebody like me who has been associated with Penn as long as I have. I was a student here when we didn’t have enough facilities, and now I’m working here, and I can actually do something about it. I feel all of the people on our staff are tremendously excited too. The fact that development has gone so well, it just justifies our confidence in the project. People have responded very enthusiastically.

Originally published Feb. 7, 2008

Originally published on .