When Bok High School closes its doors for good today, alumnus Genevieve White wonders what will become of the memorabilia, the trophies, and the other items that commemorate the 75-year history of the iconic school.
It’s a question likely being posed by alumni and current students across the 23 Philadelphia public school buildings that closed today, the last day of the school year. And it’s a question that White posed Thursday evening during “What’s Next? A Forum on Bok High’s Future,” co-hosted by AxisPhilly and NBC 10. The forum was part of the larger Schoolhouse Watch project, which encourages community input on future uses for the 23 closing school buildings.
Thursday’s forum, which took place at New Hope Temple Baptist Church, spurred discussion just hours after Bok held its final graduation. Panelists included First District Councilman Mark Squilla; David Goldfarb, zoning chair of East Passyunk Crossing Civic Association; Samuel Sherman Jr., founder of Sam Sherman Associates LLC and New Urban Ventures; Larry Eichel, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts Philadelphia Research Initiative, and Anton Moore, founder of the nonprofit Unity in the Community. AxisPhilly’s Solomon Jones moderated the forum.
The forum prompted a few questions around potential subsidies for the historic building. One participant asked if demolition would be met with opposition, and another asked whether green space was a viable future option for the site. Securing the building and promoting safety also were raised as primary concerns.
Moore, of Unity in the Community, worried about the complications that could arise from sending Bok students to South Philadelphia High School, “Southern,” where most are expected to attend next year.
“We already have gang problems in South Philadelphia with the gun violence and the drug activity. When you think of all those different things, you look at the neighborhoods and once you start bringing Fifth Street to Broad Street and you have kids from 18th Street coming to Southern, it’s a problem because of the beef that’s going on now.”
White echoed Moore’s sentiments, recalling Bok and Southern as rivals during her time at the school in late ‘80s and early ‘90s. “I’m sure that’s still going on,” she said.
Moore suggested that a school police officer remain at Bok as long as possible. And members of East Passyunk Crossing Community Association have expressed interest in helping to lookout for the building to ensure safety. An empty building, Goldfarb said, could be a risk for fire, could be a risk for vandalism and could be unintentionally demolished. “The biggest concern for us is we want a stable, continued use as soon as possible,” he said.
The building’s size, spanning a full city block and eight stories tall, is perhaps the biggest obstacle to any future use or development. In a previous study, Pew examined how large-scale school closings played out in six major cities across the country. “What we did find in our study was that the really small buildings are hard to move, and the really large buildings are hard to move,” Eichel said. “There’s kind of a middle-sized building generally that does pretty well.” Also working against the building is a boiler system shared with the Southwark School, which is across the street and will remain open as a school.
“The boiler has to be run during the process of Southwark being open,” Squilla said. “Any type of reuse of that building would have to include the school district in some sort of way to see if there’s some type of lease agreement. Who would maintain the boiler system, if the boiler system would have to be replaced and-or a new boiler system put into Southwark? Would that be a cost of the school district? Would that be a cost of the new developer?”
Bok’s building also carries with it a rich history and a coveted spot on the National Register of Historic Places. Given its status on the National Register, Sherman said, “Any developer who puts forth a viable plan and produces the financing and actually gets the project launched will qualify for a 20 percent historic tax credit and that’s 20 percent of the construction budget.” He noted that the federal government has loosened restrictions for historic buildings to allow for more commercial use. But the ultimate sale price of the building, Sherman emphasized, “is going to be a driving factor in what happens to that school and what kinds of uses go into it.”
A mixed-used strategy was presented as the most viable option for the building. Specific suggestions included affordable housing and a senior center. On the Schoolhouse Watch page for Bok, one commenter proposed capitalizing on the school’s art-deco themed auditorium to establish a cultural center in the building. And Squilla noted that his office would work with alumni and future developers to try and establish a room for Bok memorabilia in the building.
“You can’t let the legacy die,” Moore said.