No doubt about it, 2014 was the year of the pop-up. Center City was well-covered with these still rather new interventions into Philadelphia’s public space. No less than 4 pop-ups breathed new life into spaces largely devoid of it prior to their arrival (not including private outdoor gardens like Fergie's and Opa). And though multiple groups and stakeholders planned for and executed these pop-ups throughout the city, let us not forget who jumpstarted the trend just a few years back.
Shuttered schools should not mean a death sentence.
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.