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The School Reform Commission (SRC) decision to close 23 Philadelphia school buildings is the latest salvo in an ongoing battle over the future of the financially strapped Philadelphia School District.
The closings and planned sale of the buildings, which spurred anger and tears from students and parents during last week’s emotionally charged SRC meeting, have been a long time coming. As far back as June 2011, the SRC approved an Adaptive Sale and Reuse policy that said, “As a result of implementing the rightsizing measures specified in Board policy, District schools may be closed and become inventory that is designated as unused and unnecessary (Available Property).”
Though city officials say they have no specific revenue target for the sale of the buildings, the City’s Office of Property Assessment places the 2014 market value of 22 of the 23 buildings at nearly $169.4 million (the Whittier School has not yet been reassessed). The plan for the buildings’ sale has not yet been formulated, said Alan Greenberger, Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, but with 40,000 vacant parcels already depressing property values in some Philadelphia neighborhoods, the city can ill afford to support 23 more vacant properties. The question that looms large is this: What will ultimately happen to the buildings?
Greenberger, who will head up the city’s efforts to sell the buildings on behalf of the School District, said the normal process for selling city property is fairly straightforward. “We take advantage of mechanisms that are available at the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC) to run the sale and we solicit proposals from people. You advertise, you take bids, and you sell the property. For example, the Water Department building at the corner of Delaware Ave. and Race St. was sold to the Fringe Arts Group. That sale was done by the Department of Public Property using the mechanisms at PIDC.
“The difference between those [sales] and now is, we haven’t had an aggregate number of properties this large to deal with in my memory.”
With 23 large properties with individual values as high as $22.75 million, numerous city agencies, including the Department of Commerce, the PIDC, and the Redevelopment Authority (RDA) will work with the School District to come up with the best sale strategy, Greenberger said. That kind of help will be crucial, because each of the 23 properties will require its own plan.
“We’ll formulate a set of recommendations for how each property might be handled, both in terms of process and reuse,” Greenberger said. “There’s a couple of ways you do it. Part of it involves analyzing pure factual information. The School District has condition reports on the properties — how old they are, what kind of shape they’re in.”
But to come up with a price for each building, a number of things will be taken into account. “We’ll look at the piece of land [the school is built upon], the zoning in the surrounding area, the neighborhood and other public assets in the area,” Greenberger said. “We’ll need to gather all these facts around the properties and then assess the market conditions, and we’ve asked for help from some people who have expertise in this, like the Reinvestment Fund, in addition to our own people at RDA and PIDC.”
The city will seek input from some developers and real estate brokers, in addition to residents and elected officials, depending on who has the best feel for the market in the various neighborhoods where the schools are located, Greenberger said. But the plans can’t be implemented now, he acknowledged, because the prolonged fight over closing the schools has rubbed emotions raw.
“We’re not trying to pick at scabs here,” Greenberger said. “We need to move forward and come up with ideas about how to best use these buildings. … Our experience in the City Planning Commission is that people have good ideas that don’t necessarily occur to us. We’ll formulate a set of recommendations for how each property might be handled, both in terms of process and reuse.”
It’s not clear whether those recommendations will act as a guide or a mandate, but the School District’s written policy on the Adaptive Sale and Reuse of closed school buildings states that two-to-four representatives from community organizations, a representative from the applicable Councilmanic District, a representative from state government, School District officials and a representative from City Planning would review each proposal from prospective buyers. The policy also says the SRC is “committed to giving special consideration to the proposals that emphasize educational or community-centered reuse.”
That special consideration is separated into levels. Tier 1 is an Educational User—a non-profit that will use the building for educational purposes such as a charter school or higher education facility. Tier 2 is a Community/Non-profit User—a community, faith-based, or public-private user. Tier 3 is Private and Commercial Development.
The buildings could very well end up going to users in all three categories, since they are not all the same. Their market values vary widely, from the Alexander Wilson School, at 1300 S. 46th St., which is valued at $3.02 million, to Bok Career and Technical High School, at 1901 S. 9th St., valued at $17.8 million, to University City High School, at 3601 Filbert St., valued at $22.75 million. But while the buildings are different in size and value, they also have much in common.
On average, 95 percent of the students who attended the 23 affected schools in 2011 were economically disadvantaged. In communities where poverty is that acute, community interests lean toward economics. Asked how the city will seek to make sure that the community benefits from whatever projects come into their neighborhoods, Greenberger said the city will try to create local jobs.
“We like to set up situations where redevelopers are obligated to commit themselves to local employment within reasonable ranges of achievement,” he said.
But, he cautioned, sometimes benefitting the community is not just a matter of jobs. It’s a matter of striking a balance between getting the highest sale price, and determining the best future use for the property.
“Each property has a theoretical level market value,” Greenberger said. “But some development can’t absorb that value. The [developer] would like to get the property or the land for a nominal disposition that might allow the project to move forward. There are a number of things you have to weigh. Whose project is it? Is it a nonprofit or a for-profit? Do you refuse to do the deal and then nothing happens? Now you’re sitting on a property where you’re not even collecting taxes.”
Ultimately, Greenberger said, it’s about making sure the properties are sold to stable buyers who can see their projects through to completion and stay in the building long-term.
“The best case scenario is for every property is a bona fide idea for redevelopment with a real path toward that end,” he said. “Hopefully sooner rather than later. There’s nothing to be gained by these properties sitting empty for an extended period of time.”
WHYY’s NewsWorks asked: What should become of the Germantown High School property?