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In the wake of the School Reform Commission’s vote on a budget that would strip Philadelphia’s school staffs to skeleton crews in the next school year, it is fitting to look at the biggest casualties of the School District’s budget woes — the schools themselves.
Twenty-three school buildings are slated to close for good in a matter of weeks. Two such schools sit in a neighborhood I know all too well. Those schools would need a combined $18 million in upgrades just to get them up to code, according to School District documents, and in a neighborhood where blight and abandonment are widespread, they look to be candidates for long term vacancy. Their location on the cusp of a rapidly gentrifying area west of Temple University, however, could be a game changer. But no one is talking about that—at least not yet.
Roberts Vaux High School at 23rd and Master St., and Gen. John F. Reynolds Elementary School, at 24th and Jefferson St., both languish in the midst of a grim landscape. The drab gray school buildings that were constructed in 1913 and 1927 respectively, sit in the shadows of the high-rise Norman Blumberg housing project, and at both schools, students’ lessons come not just from the classroom, but also from the streets around them.
Last year in the 22nd police district where Vaux and Reynolds are located, 1,535 violent crimes were reported, including 165 shootings and 35 murders. The excessive violence is augmented by poverty. More than 96 percent of the students in the two schools are economically disadvantaged.
In a section of the city where crime and poverty are locked in an intimate embrace, the impending closure of both schools will mark yet another nail in the coffin of the North Philly community where I spent my teen years. But as two of the 23 school buildings slated to close at the end of this school year, the futures of Vaux and Reynolds are linked not only to North Philly. They are linked to the entire city.
That’s why AxisPhilly, in partnership with NBC 10 and other media entities, launched the Schoolhouse Watch project, which engages communities to help determine future uses for buildings like Vaux and Reynolds. That link to the future is also why the University of Pennsylvania School of Design created New Life for Old Schools: Philadelphia School Reuse Studio.
In its study, Penn’s School of Design looked at the realities of the neighborhood surrounding these two schools, including the preponderance of vacant land and the influx of new affordable housing built by non-profits like the Beech Corporation and private investors.
After examining those factors, Penn came up with a well thought out, $32 million case study that would partner the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA), private investors and the city in a plan that would convert the Reynolds school into apartments, while converting Vaux to a charter school with a community center and medical facility. The case study includes affordable housing and a plan for other amenities that would be useful to the community, such as recreation, retail, and a food market. But the case study is not a pie in the sky. It takes into account the low property values in the immediate area around the school, and warns against moving too slowly.
“In an area generally characterized by poverty, disinvestment, and widespread vacancy, leaving these school buildings empty would only compound such problems,” the study says.
“However, other previously downtrodden areas north of downtown have experienced, or started to experience, rejuvenation in the 21st century as a mix of market forces and government intervention and subsidy have driven both gentrification and affordable housing production.”
There’s that word: gentrification. In communities like North Philly, it is a word that conjures images of people being forced from their homes as residents with more money and more resources move in, bringing with them higher property values, higher taxes, and higher rents. There is a racial element to the term; one that is not mentioned in the section of the Penn study that refers to Vaux and Reynolds. But gentrification is playing out in real time just a few blocks east of Vaux, and it is driven by the one reality that is changing the face of the neighborhood in real and tangible ways: Student housing.
In the past decade, redevelopment has rapidly moved west from Temple University, as affordable housing and market-rate housing have combined with new rental properties for students to increase property values on blocks that were once considered slums. For example, new housing on 1900 Oxford Street, just a stone’s throw from abandoned properties one block away, is now valued at $92,000. And new construction in the neighborhood is continuing to move west at a rapid clip.
As Penn’s study pointed out, the Vaux and Reynolds buildings, along with the property where the Blumberg housing project now stands, can complement housing developments that have already been built nearby. But a key part of the plan includes the redevelopment of the Blumberg housing project.
This is likely to happen only if the successful development of Vaux and Reynolds can help PHA to obtain what it hasn’t been able to get before — federal funding to raze and rebuild the Blumberg housing project as a Choice Neighborhoods development. Choice Neighborhoods is a comprehensive initiative from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that seeks to improve communities by building partnerships between public, private and non-profit entities to invest in mixed-income housing, as well as educational and social services.
But all of this is contingent upon the stars aligning. Will a potential buyer see the Vaux and Reynolds properties as a package deal? Will that buyer look beyond the $18 million the Vaux and Reynolds properties will need in order to come up to code? Will the City and School District do what Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger has spoken about previously — sell the property at a nominal cost if it leads to a sustainable development? And will the buyer be able to look beyond the crime, poverty, and abandonment in order to invest in a development that may or may not have to coexist with one of the city’s last remaining high-rise housing projects?
The answers to all of those questions may be tied to the one word that is taboo in communities like North Philly: Gentrification.
If potential buyers and their partners believe that the need for Temple student housing will continue to push redevelopment westward, then properties like Vaux and Reynolds are a wise investment. But if not, Vaux and Reynolds could very well sit vacant for the foreseeable future, adding yet another layer of blight to a community where vacancy and abandonment have taken a toll.
It is, in a sense, a chess game; one that is painfully ironic given the history of Vaux as a chess powerhouse.
Coached by a special education teacher named Michael Sherman, then a math teacher named Jeffrey Chesin, Vaux fielded a team of North Philly students who won seven national championships and traveled to Yugoslavia. The chess team was later revived by Salome Thomas El, who wrote a book about his experiences called, “I Choose To Stay.”
That is the question now, for both the community and potential developers. Who will choose to invest in Vaux and Reynolds? And given the challenges facing both the buildings and the surrounding community, will that investor choose to stay?
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