Philadelphia School District: Through the Closures, New Openings
Yesterday our public schools in Philadelphia resumed after summer break and reopened... just barely. Following the Philadelphia school system in the news cycle means reading through an almost endless litany of negative press coverage and editorials. Despite the acrimony of who in Harrisburg or Philadelphia is to blame, at a high level we know that our current Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett seems unwilling to raise new revenue for our school system. We also know our local officials, like the now deceased Arlene Ackerman, have further wounded our public trust in political leadership.
Regardless, we also know education plays a crucial role in social mobility. By and large our Philadelphia suburbs enjoy wealthy, well-appointed schools while our urban core is left struggling. However, one part of our current crisis, vast overcapacity in Philadelphia public school buildings, has been at least partly created by the political shift towards charter schools. We don’t seek to critique charter school education policy as that is not the focus of this site. We do however know that most charter schools do not utilize public school buildings and as charters grow, our need for public school buildings dwindles. We as Philadelphians should expect the glut of unused school buildings, many of which are architecturally significant, to further grow in the months and years ahead. Their vacancy exacerbates an already dire situation with the city failing to effectively convert vacant land to productive new uses.
Emerging from this backdrop is some forward-thinking policy from City Hall. The Nutter administration has announced plans to sell off school buildings in a more thoughtful way thanks in part to guidance drawn up by UPenn students. This plan includes categorizing properties into different groupings of demand and including local Registered Community Organizations (RCO) for zoning issues. These disused public school buildings present the city with some really positive development opportunities.
Schools form a unique realm within public space. They are multifunctional multi-floor buildings that densely pack in comfortable amounts of students per classroom. In short, they are hardwired for conversion into dense multi-unit residences or office space.
Schools contain large common areas like cafeterias, playgrounds and interior and exterior athletic facilities. This means potential conversion into condominium-like living arrangements with amenities like gyms, space for party rentals and greenspace for residents and the local community.
Schools are often much taller than the surrounding two to three story average of most Philadelphia homes. Since they are already built in this higher profile than their surroundings, with rezoning they offer developers good return on investment with per unit building costs falling as building height and density increases.
Sometimes schools comprise entire blocks of city land with long borders facing neighborhoods on multiple sides. They can be focal points of architecture like the old West Philadelphia or Germantown High Schools. Beautiful old architecture can be a strong selling point for residential or commercial reuse. Long borders and surrounding land facing the neighborhood offer unique opportunities for greenspace conversions and lots of interior light for existing façades covered in windows.
We also know that these architectural gems often pose unique challenges for redevelopment. Scale can be an issue as often only medium to large real estate developers can secure financing for large building renewal.
Location, like with any real estate investment is crucial. An enormous school in Strawberry Mansion poses lots of challenges for a developer since the demand for new private real estate in that section of the city is not nearly as strong as an area like Passyunk Square.
NIMBYism plays a role with any development here in the city and a strong RCO or zealous councilperson can reduce profitability potential for redevelopment projects by requiring lower density or higher amounts of parking. NIMBYism and individual neighbors can also hold up projects by withholding support or suing a developer.
Property-specific issues also effect schools in the form of asbestos remediation or accelerated forms of architectural disrepair to complex stonework and masonry.
With those challenges in mind, what do we stand to lose if gems like Northeast High School are lost to the wrecking ball? If we just look at what these buildings give us right now we’ll lose the architectural focal points of many of our two to three story neighborhoods. We’ll lose well-built stone and brick edifice with tall ceilings and expansive spaces. We’ll lose our history through the famous Philadelphians who were once educated in these hallowed halls of learning. We’ll lose something irreplaceable that many newer cities in the US would love… the sense of place that only an old established city with a legacy of architecture can produce. This is what we know about what we stand to lose today.
Even sadder is the city of tomorrow that we stand to lose. School buildings are surrounded by hundreds of acres of land, much of it recreational in nature. We stand to lose public space that can be repurposed into neighborhoods that sorely need more green space. (E.M. Stanton Elementary comes to mind in Graduate Hospital). We stand to lose opportunity to repopulate a city with higher density to make ourselves more economically viable like the days when our population swelled with 2.5, not today’s 1.5 million. We stand to lose millions of dollars in property tax revenue that higher density commercial and residential redevelopment of school buildings can bring.
Yet who is capable of redeveloping these buildings and how can we lower the bar to allow more developers the opportunity to remake these often challenging projects?
Low Hanging Fruit
The first place to look is the public sector itself. With the amount of large scale buildings available not built in high rise, but appropriate for redevelopment into apartment living, there is absolutely no reason why HUD and PHA couldn’t redevelop school buildings into residential usage. Long-term this makes sense as schools that were once the focal points of their neighborhoods can be remade into the residential hubs of their communities. For areas of Philadelphia where greater economic challenges exist due to school buildings’ distance from emerging and higher cost neighborhoods, the public sector could play a crucial role in stabilizing poorer areas from more population decline. Redevelopment of older buildings comes at much lower environmental and long-term cost to the taxpayer since well-built masonry buildings age better over time and have lower energy costs once retrofitted versus new woodframe equivalents. HUD cuts at federal levels already seem to be driving new approaches towards structurally stable older buildings, as evidenced by PHA’s reassessment of the demolition of Queen Lane apartments.
Encouraging The Best in Private Investment:
Sound Policy & Regulatory Mandates
For buildings in more marketable neighborhoods where private sector redevelopment is more viable, several safeguards could be included into City Hall’s plans to ensure the best reuse of these spaces. Architectural preservation is the most important goal of former school building redevelopment. Ensuring façades are in a good state of repair could be achieved by mandating that developers:
1) Conduct design review approvals with the Historical Commission for changes like window replacements, additions, etc.
2) Remove exterior window coverings and non-original additions that no longer serve a purpose and create a prison-like appearance for our schools.
3) Historically Landmark these buildings after façade renovations are complete to ensure future preservation and oversight into changes.
Many of these school buildings are surrounded by vacant land like parking lots and sport courts. Planned green space and recreational areas are in critical need in places like South Philly and Graduate Hospital. Philadelphia leads the US in progressive policy for stormwater management. This program, known as Green City, Clean Waters, encourages landlords for commercial real estate to thoughtfully replace asphalt with greenspace and pervious surface.
4) Apply similar standards to pervious and non-pervious pavements for redeveloped schools zoned commercial or residential to encourage developers to thoughtfully replace asphalt with greenspace.
Since these assets are now publically-owned, mandates and credits could be stipulated at the time of sale pursuant to successful adoption of these goals. The city has leverage at these moments and shouldn’t squander it.
How can the city sweeten the pot for developers to redevelop properties with market potential? Lowering the financial barriers to entry is crucial as mainly only medium to large developers can take on these projects.
5) Special financial assistance for issues like asbestos removal or bioremediation of tainted soil could be at least partially offset by the city in the form of financial grants/rebates. Many of our schools contain unique problems like this that could be offset by the public sector.
6) Providing grants/rebates for LEED certified redevelopment in energy efficiency and construction site management would incentivize builders to build more environmentally responsible.
7) Allowing developers to request the Streets Department bear the cost of sidewalk repair and replacement for any school properties prior to transfer of ownership between parties. This would further reduce development costs since Philadelphia is an odd man out for requiring property owners to bear the cost of sidewalk repair and replacement despite the fact that the sidewalk is part of the street and should be maintained by the Streets Department. Having the Streets Department replace these sidewalks also allows the city to mandate tree pits, support the greening work of PHS, and include updated infrastructure for bike parking, car parking and public transit sheltering all in one go.
Help with Governance
8) The cost of labor in Philadelphia is high. Protection from criminal acts of arson like the burning of the Chestnut Hill Quaker Meeting House construction site as well as police presence to break up union demonstrations that block free and clear entry and exit points to construction sites are critical to ensuring private developers have the ability to employ the resources they see fit under state safety guidelines and prevailing state and city wage laws, not under union guidelines.
9) Exemption of parking minimums under zoning code and prohibiting parking concerns from being considered by RCOs or the ZBA for these properties would make development cheaper by maximizing profitable living or working space in these buildings that yield higher returns on investment for developers than parking. It would also shorten the lengthy process developers have to face when going up against a wall of neighborhood residents whose main concern is not their city or the value of the project itself, but their parking spot.
Through Tax Incentive
10) Historical redevelopment credits in the form of cancellation of transfer taxes upon sale of the property from public to private hands can ensure leverage from the Historical Commission for review approval (penalty of original transfer tax applied on builders pursuing plans that don’t comply with Historical Commission) and combat the argument that tearing down is better for a developer than redeveloping. This also moves us away from 10-year tax abatements which kill ten years of additional funding for schools.
Today in Philadelphia we are losing millions in tax revenue on unproductive property while we place important buildings into ether hoping they get redeveloped. At the same time we are looking down the walls of an abyss angrily denouncing the forces that brought us here. Yet there is no need to squander opportunity to redevelop these buildings for preservation, to make our neighborhoods denser and more viable, to provide for more green space, to improve our environment, and most importantly to act as good stewards of the legacy previous generations have left us. We can look at these buildings as a hopeless burden or, with smart policy they can be transformed into tremendous assets.
We know as charters grow we’ll need our school buildings even less for their original purposes. With more thoughtful policy that won’t matter. These buildings are future wealth waiting.