School district nearing sale of old West Philly High, other vacant buildings
November 5, 2012By Benjamin Herold
With dozens of new school closings looming, the Philadelphia School District is nearing deals to sell some of its properties that are already vacant, including the historic former home of West Philadelphia High.
City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell of West Philadelphia's third district says school officials will soon decide between offers from private developers who want to convert the 250,000-square-foot school building at 47th and Walnut into a mix of retail and residential units.
"What I believe will happen is that we'll end up with mixed use on the first floor and then residential stuff above it," said Blackwell.
School district officials declined to comment on the details of their efforts to sell specific properties, citing ongoing negotiations.
But Danielle Floyd, the district's deputy for strategic initiatives, said that the market for old school buildings in Philadelphia has been overall surprisingly robust.
"We're encouraged," said Floyd. "We've been very fortunate that we've attracted [potential buyers] who aren't deterred by the present condition [of the buildings]."
Floyd said the district has received solid offers for "a majority" of the 12 properties it currently has on the market.
At some of the buildings, including a vacant administrative building located near Meredith Elementary in Queen Village, interest has been intense, according to multiple sources.
Other buildings, though, have yet to receive any offers. That group includes the former Willard Elementary in Kensington, according to a legislative assistant in the office of City Councilman Mark Squilla.
The bids that have come in are primarily from private developers and charter schools, said Floyd.
Teams consisting of district staff, elected officials, city planners, and community representatives have been vetting those offers in a secretive process that has provoked displeasure from some community residents.
The School Reform Commission is expected to vote to approve the sale of an unspecified number of buildings at its meeting on Nov. 15.
Hoping to avoid blight
This year's district budget projects $11 million in revenue from the sale of surplus properties.
Closing the deal on West will be essential to reaching that target.
Councilwoman Blackwell said she expects the building to sell for around $6 million, close to its listed value.
That would be a significant coup for the cash-strapped school district, but Floyd said price is just one of several factors the district is considering.
"We want to have a buyer who is prepared to move, and to move in an aggressive way," she said.
In general, said Floyd, the district wants to make sure that buildings go to buyers who have solid financial backing, a strong track record, a quick timeline, and a good plan that makes sense for the surrounding neighborhood. Ensuring that buildings don't sit vacant for extended periods is a priority.
"The safety concerns and blight that [long-term vacancies] present to a community is a concern the district shares," said Floyd. "We want to see these properties put back in use."
Emily Dowdall of the Pew Charitable Trusts' Philadelphia Research Initiative said the district is wise to focus on quickly getting empty buildings off its books.
"These are big, aging buildings that deteriorate quickly after they're decommissioned," said Dowdall. "Because they're often the biggest building in a residential neighborhood, they become major eyesores, and they can become sites of illicit activities and dangerous fires."
Dowdall said PRI has begun studying similar efforts made by districts in 12 other cities.
"It's not easy to move these building, by any means," said Dowdall. "Age and condition and location are really big challenges."
At first glance, several of the district properties currently for sale appear near-impossible to sell. The former Walton Elementary in North Philadelphia, for example, is a 111-year-old, 69,000-square-foot building that has sat vacant since 2003. A recent visit showed a graffiti- and trash-strewn building marked on the door with a large red 'X.'
Floyd said the district, with the help of outside real estate brokers, has been working hard to get potential buyers to look beneath the scarred exteriors of buildings like Walton.
"When we look at them, we see potential," said Floyd. "It was clearly something that added value and had meaning in the community, and it can be that again with the right group of people. "
A new process
In June 2011, the School Reform Commission adopted a new "adaptive reuse policy" to guide the disposition of surplus properties.
Dowdall of PRI praised the district's "active" new approach.
Blackwell, who said she's been involved in the district's effort to sell West "at every step of the way," concurred.
But some neighborhood residents in West Philadelphia and elsewhere have expressed displeasure at the lack of wider public input when it comes to deciding the future of major public assets.
Take Jeff Hornstein, the president of the Queen Village Neighbors Association.
Hornstein says the single biggest thing that the upscale South Philadelphia community has going for it is the highly regarded Meredith Elementary School, which helps the neighborhood to attract and retain young, middle-class families.
One of the problems facing Queen Village, he said, is that Meredith is overcrowded. But a potential solution is right across the street: the school district's vacant Education Services Building at 427 Monroe Street.
"Meredith is an oversubscribed school," said Hornstein. "The school district owns a building 50 yards away. So some people have asked why that doesn't just become Meredith's annex?"
Unfortunately, he said, no one from the district has come to Queen Village to listen to those kinds of questions and ideas from neighborhood residents.
Instead, the district empaneled an "RFP evaluation team" — one of seven established across the city — to vet proposals from interested buyers.
School officials declined to identify the members of those teams, saying only that they consist of district staff, elected officials, city planners, and community representatives who were invited by the district.
Hornstein said two board members from the Queen Village Neighbors Association are participating, but were required to sign confidentiality agreements.
"I don't think [district officials] have the capacity or the time to really have an open community process," said Hornstein.
Floyd defended the secrecy as necessary for any competitive bidding processes.
In Queen Village, the team looking at proposals for the Education Services Building near Meredith is "very near" to choosing a winner from among "seven or eight" proposals, said Sean McMonagle, a legislative assistant to City Councilman Mark Squilla of Philadelphia's 1st District.
The proposals are from private developers seeking to turn the building in condos or apartments, according to multiple sources.
Hornstein is disappointed that there was not a more robust "visioning" process for the vacant building near Meredith, but said he understands.
"The market forces in this neighborhood are probably pointing in one direction," he said.
Later this month, said Floyd, the district will host open meetings in Queen Village and some other communities near buildings set for sale. The purpose will be to "make sure the broader community is informed about what the plans are for the facility."
Ultimately, the School Reform Commission will decide which buyer gets any district property.
Floyd would not specify how many building sales are likely to be voted on by the SRC this month, saying only that the district was "in various stages of negotiations" on all of its available properties.
Some recommendations of sale could be pushed back until December.
At those properties that have not received any interest so far, the district will keep trying to generate offers, said Floyd. In the event that no outside proposals materialize, the district could partner with the city to turn the parcels into green space.
District officials said it costs between $30,000 and $50,000 per year to maintain a single vacant building.
Floyd also said the district remains on track to recommend a massive new round of school closings sometime in November. No announcement date has yet been set.
Over the next five years, the district is banking on $28 million in revenue from sale of surplus buildings. Officials have previously said that as many as 64 school buildings could be closed during that time.
"We're consistent on the magnitude of the changes that need to occur," said Floyd.
This story was reported as part of a partnership in education coverage between WHYY/NewsWorks and the Public School Notebook.