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The 23 pending school closings in the Philadelphia School District are not happening in a vacuum. They are part of a national trend that is affecting numerous American cities whose schools buildings are aging and half-empty.
A recent report by the Center for Green Schools concluded that America’s school buildings are in such disrepair that it would require $542 billion to repair them. Rather than taking on expensive fixes, many districts have chosen to sell older school buildings, but a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that selling the buildings is not always the answer. Since 2005, 12 districts have tried to sell, lease or reuse a total of 534 properties, according to the study. Fifty-six percent of those properties remain unused and on the market.
In Philadelphia, where 40,000 abandoned properties have prompted the city to embark on a Vacant Property Management Strategy, the stakes are particularly high. On average, 95.6 percent of the students in the 23 schools slated to close are economically disadvantaged. In neighborhoods that so acutely reflect the city’s 28 percent poverty rate, allowing large school buildings to remain vacant could spell disaster. But as the national numbers indicate, other cities have faced similar issues, and they’ve found both problems and solutions that Philadelphia can’t afford to overlook.
“One thing we found is that speed is really important,” said Emily Dowdall, co-author of ‘Shuttered Public Schools: The Struggle to Bring Old Buildings New Life,’ a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia research initiative. “Buildings can deteriorate really quickly so school districts have to be active in trying to find new uses. The longer they’re empty the longer they’re likely to be empty.”
But there are obstacles to doing that, Dowdall said, and some of them are self-imposed. School districts and their partners should do what anyone selling property would — list comprehensive information in a way that helps prospective buyers make informed decisions. Unfortunately, that hasn’t always happened.
“In the last round of buildings that were put out on the market [the Philadelphia School District] had Request for Proposal (RFP) information on the procurement area of their website, but there was nowhere where there was information available on every school in one place,” Dowdall said.
The Philadelphia School District now has an online Facilities Master Plan, but it isn’t specific to the schools that are being sold. In looking at how other cities disseminated information, Pew found that Detroit and Kansas City did the best job of having public information available about all the available schools — the condition of the sites as well as the status of the sites. Detroit, for example, has an Office of Real Estate website containing information on all its available buildings. Philadelphia would do well to dispense information as efficiently, Dowdall said, because connecting the schools with viable buyers is a vital part of getting them off the market quickly.
There is another issue, however, and that is the value of the school buildings. While the city has set the values of 22 of the 23 buildings between $3 million and $22.75 million, other issues will determine what they will actually fetch on the open market.
“Some of the challenges are that the buildings are located in neighborhoods where there isn’t a lot of real estate activity and the buildings might not be in great condition, and now there are going to be a whole lot of them in the market in addition to schools that have been shut down by Archdiocese,” Dowdall said.
In addition to the glut of properties coming onto the market all at once, other vacant buildings could bring down the value of the schools. That’s the challenge the School District will face in trying to sell Germantown High School, said Councilwoman Cindy Bass, who represents the Eighth Council District, where the school is located.
“There’s the vacant Town Hall building on Germantown Avenue, the old Department of Public Welfare building at the corner of Germantown and High Streets, which is vacant, and then the old YMCA next to Center in the Park, which has been vacant for years, so ultimately that [vacancy] works to kill the business corridor,” Bass said.
“When you have these large buildings that are vacant,” she added, “how do you begin? We’ve been trying to get someone to take interest in the other buildings, but to no avail. If you add one more vacant building to the mix, it’s even more difficult. Why would you want to buy Town Hall with another large building lurking — a huge vacant building right across the street?”
Bass’s point about the vacancy surrounding Germantown High School is a valid issue; one that is not unique to Philadelphia.
The glut of buildings and the surrounding vacancy aren’t the only problems that could lower the value of the Philadelphia school buildings that are about to be shuttered, said Kevin Gillen, senior research consultant at the Fels Institute of Government at University of Pennsylvania. There’s also the red tape involved in dealing with government entities.
“The vacant parcels we found had the most market value were those parcels that were relatively large locations — commercial locations that could be turned into Wawa stores, gas stations, things like that,” said Gillen, who has worked on vacant land issues.
“The city could create value by putting adjacent parcels into one big parcel controlled by one city entity,” he said. “Assembling the parcels is especially attractive for developers who aren’t interested in dealing with four city agencies who have no incentive for talking to each other.”
Coordinating under one agency cuts red tape and saves time for the developer, Gillen said. Because time is money, that adds value to the parcel.
Philadelphia has already begun moving toward assembling various city agencies to work with the Philadelphia School District in order to sell the buildings. Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger will lead that process, which will include agencies like the Department of Commerce, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC), and the Redevelopment Authority (RDA). Dowdall, of Pew, said that’s a good sign. But, she added, other cities have used additional strategies successfully.
“It can be useful to look at the entire portfolio of schools as a group to see where the strengths and the weaknesses lie across the whole set of schools,” Dowdall said. “This has been difficult in a lot of cities. I think Kansas City and Detroit have done a better job than most at making information available and in general I think cities benefit when they figure out what the priorities are in advance.”
Specifically, cities need to figure out what they’d like to gain from selling the building. If their priority is finding the best reuse for the school building, it might make sense to turn the building over to a non-profit that will serve the community, but would not pay taxes. If the priority is collecting long-term tax revenue on the building, it might be best to sell it over to a for-profit entity.
Make no mistake. It will be difficult to find new uses for all the soon-to-be available buildings. But for some, there are definite options. Dowdall said that a building like Germantown High School can work for multifamily or senior housing, echoing two uses that were also mentioned by Councilwoman Bass. And if buyers are willing to be imaginative, like those in other cities have been, there are additional uses, as well.
“We’ve seen a couple interesting uses that include a movie theater in Detroit or a green technology training center in Pittsburgh done in partnership with Penn State,” Dowdall said. “Buildings have also become police stations or other government buildings. And one of the buildings the School District of Philadelphia just sold—John Paul Jones Annex in Port Richmond—is going to be a small business incubator.”
Whatever the schools are going to become, said Gillen, the priority now is to take care of them.
“In the short term you want to keep the buildings maintained so they don’t fall into disrepair,” he said. “Second, you want to set up a task force that would RFP these properties out to see what the overall market reaction is so you can get a sense of the market value for repurposing these properties for alternative use. For those properties that the market now does not see a use, ask yourself if someday the market will see a use. If the answer is no, ask yourself, ‘What about the land?’ Would the market see a use for the land if you knocked down the building to have the land repurposed? If the answer is still no, you have to consider some public use of it like a garden or a park.”
The worst outcome, according to experts, is that the buildings remain vacant. Since 2005, that’s exactly what happened for 56 percent of the school buildings that were studied by Pew. If Philadelphia sees those kinds of rates for the school buildings that will soon come onto the market, the implications could go well beyond the School District.
“It becomes a real challenge to the revitalization of the neighborhood,” Gillen said. “Vacancies and tax delinquency are leading indicators of a neighborhood’s decline.”