After years of a development boom that brought billions of dollars in work to the region, the economic downturn hit hard in Philadelphia and eastern Pennsylvania. The recession, coupled with limited access to financing, all but dried up opportunities in 2009.

Even the area�s colleges, universities and health-care facilities, which typically buzz with activity, dulled to a low hum.

Tough times have continued through 2010, although some see a glimmer of hope on the horizon.

�The best I can say is that there�s a lot more chatter in the industry today than last year,� says Greg Stewart, executive vice president of Gilbane Building in Philadelphia. �[Clients] are talking about getting things going, but it�s extremely slow. I don�t think we�ve even hit bottom yet.�

Gilbane counts itself among the contractors fortunate enough to have projects moving forward. The firm is currently working on $48 million in renovations and additions at Community College of Philadelphia. In May, it broke ground on the 360,000-sq-ft, $156-million Albert Einstein Health Network�s new regional medical center in suburban Philadelphia. The project, designed by Perkins + Will, is scheduled for completion in mid-2012.

�All you can do in this environment is try to maintain a steady workflow,� Stewart says. �On every job, the numbers are tight and everyone is enlisting their best and brightest. The competition is extremely tough.�

Institutional clients, historically a consistent source of work in eastern Pennsylvania, are among the few owners with projects under way and new plans on the boards.

Al Fazzini, director of marketing at L.F. Driscoll in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., says that many higher-education and health-care clients are continuing with upgrades and small expansion projects, while forging big plans for future work.

�The universities always have a steady stream of upgrade projects and we�re seeing opportunities to start preconstruction on upgrade projects within hospitals too,� he says. �Many of those things enable expansions to happen later.�

At the top of Driscoll�s list of current projects is the $110-million Penn State Hershey Medical Center Children�s Hospital in Hershey, which broke ground in November and is scheduled to complete in 2012. The firm also broke ground last fall on the $150-million Barnes Museum in Philadelphia, which is scheduled to complete in late 2011.

Although current activity is limited, several colleges and universities are planning big for the future. In May 2009, Temple University�s Board of Trustees approved its $1.2-billion Temple 20/20 plan, which would firmly establish Broad Street in Philadelphia as the center of campus.

Plans include a $50-million expansion of Pearson McGonigle Hall to 365,000 sq ft, a new library, new science building, residence hall, retail space, green space and additional parking garages.

Drexel University selected Turner Construction of Philadelphia in December to manage construction of the $49.7-million Constantine Papadakis Integrated Sciences Building. The 138,000-sq-ft facility, which will feature 39 research and teaching laboratories, is set to complete in June 2011.

In December, Drexel also selected Voith & Mactavish Architects of Philadelphia and Robert A.M. Stern Architects of New York to design the new LeBow College of Business. Initial plans call for the existing 57,000-sq-ft Matheson Hall to be incorporated into a new structure that would add 125,000 sq ft.

University of Pennsylvania began work on its $46-million Penn Park project in November. The 24-acre project, which will include athletic fields, tennis courts and paths, is part of a 30-year plan to develop the old Post Office site near campus. Completion of the project is expected in 2011. Additional plans call for new office towers, residential, retail and parking areas.

In September, Chestnut Hill College presented a 25-year, $500-million master plan that would enable enrollment to rise from 900 full-time students to 1,500 students.

Commercial �Still Reeling� While firms hold out hope for future institutional opportunities, there remains little optimism in the commercial sector. Ian Cope, a partner at Philadelphia�s Cope Linder Architects, says the commercial market is �still reeling,� due partly to tough lending standards. Among the developers looking at possible projects, many are turning to repositioning existing properties through historic rehabs or adaptive reuse.

�It�s pretty daunting for commercial developers to do a new building and have it end up being worth less than when they started,� Cope says. �Plus the loan-to-value ratios remain ridiculous. It�s easier with an existing structure that you can reposition.�

Technology company Unisys Corp. had plans to relocate its corporate headquarters from Blue Bell, Pa., to Two Liberty Place in Philadelphia, but scrapped those plans. Instead, the company is renovating an existing building on its campus.

The 212,000-sq-ft project, designed by KlingStubbins of Philadelphia with the Norwood Co. of Malvern serving as construction manager at risk, broke ground last summer and will complete in June.