On Thursday, March 14 neighbors in Germantown crowded into Janes United Methodist Church at 47 East Haines Street for a town hall-style meeting. The community gathered over concerns about a brochure that surfaced online in January marketing the redevelopment of Germantown High School, vacant since 2013, with a mixed-use plan that would replace the parcel’s front lawn with new construction and parking. The meeting was presented in partnership with the church, POWER, Germantown United CDC, and State Representative Stephen Kinsey.
The School District of Philadelphia closed 23 public schools in 2013 and partnered with the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC) to coordinate the sale of 11 shuttered schools. PIDC bundled some school buildings to sell as package deals. In September 2014, both Germantown High School and Fulton Elementary were approved for sale to Maryland-based real estate development firm Concordia Group. The deal stalled after a lawsuit was filed with the Commonwealth Court by a group of Point Breeze residents that opposed the sale of Walter George Smith School to Concordia Group. The sale package also included the two schools in Germantown and Abigail Vare Elementary School in Pennsport.
In March 2017, the Commonwealth ruled in favor of selling the schools to Concordia Group and instructed local courts to approve the deal. Although the School District’s combined sales price for both Germantown schools was suggested at $4.55 million, Concordia Group purchased Germantown High School for $100,000 and Fulton Elementary for $500,000.
Concordia Group then flipped the two Germantown properties in a sale to real estate developer Jack Azran. No property taxes have been paid since the buildings were sold in 2017. According to City records, the current balance due on the four addresses that comprise Germantown High School is $587,412.24. The total taxes due on the two addresses that make up Fulton Elementary School is $572,466.78. Azran’s lawyers recently stated that the developer will not be spearheading previous plans for redeveloping the two schools and that High Top Real Estate & Development will be taking the lead.
Plan for Germantown High School appeared on the website of real estate brokers MSC Retail in January depicting a suburban-style shopping center surrounded by parking lots on the site’s wooded lawn fronting Germantown Avenue. The firm has been hired to broker prospective investment in redeveloping the site, but is not involved with the design or construction. Representatives of MSC Retail did not attend the meeting and did not respond to a request for comment by the time this story was published. The site plan has since been removed from the firm’s website.
The Germantown community has a very different vision for the school and surrounding parcel. The Philadelphia 2035 Upper Northwest District Plan, created by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission with community input, was adopted in October 2018. It incorporates elements identified by stakeholders as desired assets in the neighborhood like retaining Germantown High School’s historic auditorium and gymnasium for public use. The plan suggests a mix of residential, educational, and live/work space with an open promenade facing Germantown Avenue.
In an email, Ian Hegerty, the Planning Commission’s community planner in charge of the Upper Northwest District Plan, said, “The City’s comprehensive plan includes a vision for the high school that corresponds to the extensive and thoughtful work of the Germantown High School Coalition and other community stakeholders. This vision will guide the Planning Commission as it evaluates proposals for redevelopment of this important landmark.”
Leslie Smallwood-Lewis of Mosaic Development Partners, the firm redeveloping Golaski Labs next to Wayne Junction in Southwest Germantown and a parcel next to Tulpehocken Station, spoke at the meeting on March 14. She explained to the crowd the general process and procedures investors must adhere to in the city when developing large properties. Real estate lawyer Richard Vanderslice gave pointers on how communities can take control over blighted properties and redevelop them through The Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act.
Councilwoman Cindy Bass arrived halfway through the meeting. She addressed the crowd by stating, “For the record, we have never supported a project that the community did not want.”
At the end of the meeting attendees were invited to ask questions and give comments. One neighbor pointed out that the attorney representing the developers of the Germantown schools recently held a fundraiser for Cindy Bass. Other public comments included questions about how to hold owners accountable for the maintenance of the two properties and how to ensure that the historic integrity of the two buildings does not get lost in future redevelopment plans. Ideas for reusing the two schools ranged from affordable housing units to hosting theater programs in the auditorium to personal trainers utilizing the gymnasium.
Councilwoman Bass said that she plans to organize a meeting between the developer and neighbors in early April. Julie Stapleton Carroll, president of Germantown United CDC, said the group will remain vigilant in following the development of these and other large vacant properties in Germantown. “The high school and surrounding area is pivotal to the revitalization of our neighborhood. Our hope is that the developer will work with us to create a project that not only is financially feasible for them, but that is truly a partnership with the community and encompasses the community’s vision,” said Carroll.