Are plans for old Wanamaker School changing?

PATRICK McPEAK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Across from Bright Hope Baptist Church sits The View at Montgomery. What's next for the old school property?
PATRICK McPEAK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Across from Bright Hope Baptist Church sits The View at Montgomery. What's next for the old school property?
Posted: December 17, 2013

BACK IN 2007, members of North Philly's Bright Hope Baptist Church marched seven times around the vacant Wanamaker School, replicating the story from the Bible in which believers marched around the walls of Jericho.

The congregants hoped and prayed that they would beat out Temple University for the rights to the sprawling Wanamaker property across from the church on Cecil B. Moore Avenue at 12th Street, part of which they would turn into a community center and a charter school.

"We marched around that school because we were fighting Temple because they wanted to buy the school," a Bright Hope congregant recalled.

Later that year, they rejoiced when the church's Bridge of Hope Community Development Corp. joined forces with the Goldenberg Group of Blue Bell to buy the property.

The plan, as described to the School Reform Commission in December 2007 - and later outlined in an agreement of sale with the Philadelphia School District - included an apartment building for Temple students, a charter school run by the church, and a community center for job training and other needs of North Philadelphia.

But now, Bright Hope's pastor, the Rev. Kevin R. Johnson, says the money paid by the Goldenberg Group to Bridge of Hope might be used to build a "new-vision" school - either on the Wanamaker site or on other available property in North Philadelphia.

And Kenneth N. Goldenberg, the firm's president and CEO, said he's thinking of putting a hotel and more student housing on the Wanamaker site.

The first phase of development of the old Wanamaker School is nearly complete: The View at Montgomery, a brand-new 14-story apartment building soaring toward the heavens draped in bright red and orange.

Neither Johnson nor officials of Goldenberg Group would disclose details. But both parties said the financial agreement between Bridge of Hope and the Goldenberg Group had been restructured to allow the church to reap benefits before the new apartment building opens next fall. Both Johnson and Goldenberg say they remain partners.

But the financial restructuring has some church members and neighborhood residents perplexed.

"Every time I look over there [and see the 14-story apartment building], I feel a little degraded," said a man who asked not to be identified but said he has been a Bright Hope member for more than 10 years. "We won the right to buy the property, and now we are out of the loop."

In an email to the Daily News, Johnson said that in light of the many schools that have closed and are on the market, "we are currently considering other sites. Ideally, we would like for the school to be built on Cecil B. Moore Avenue."

But Sandra Dungee Glenn, former chairwoman of the School Reform Commission, who had voted to accept Bright Hope/Goldenberg's $10.75 million bid for the Wanamaker School, said she understood that the partnership would reuse the old Wanamaker site for a school and community center.

"That's what was put forth at the time," Glenn said. "That's what we based our actions on.

"It was clear that the church had some interest in community activities. . . . That was a positive attribute of the package that came before us, and it was a fair price."

Former SRC member Martin Bednarik said he voted for the Bright Hope/Goldenberg bid because "they presented the highest offer, that was the main thing."

Bednarik said his main concern was having a requirement "that the property had to be developed within five years. . . . The reason we did that was that the DisneyQuest project, that was Goldenberg, and we didn't want another big hole in the ground."

Goldenberg had been DisneyQuest's local partner in a proposed $167 million indoor amusement park at 8th and Market streets that cost taxpayers $44 million when Disney backed out in 2000.

Now it appears that the Goldenberg Group wants to put a hotel on the former Wanamaker property.

"We will be talking to Temple University to work with them" on the second and third phases of development, Kenneth Goldenberg said. "Maybe there will be a hotel."

Asked about Johnson's statement that the church may have to buy additional land if it wants to build a school, a spokeswoman for both the Goldenberg Group and Bridge of Hope said "planning and discussions continue . . . regarding how to maximize the development opportunity for everyone in future phases of the project."

Meanwhile, the congregant who spoke about the seven circuits around the old school said he felt used.

"I do believe we were kind of used as pawns, because the initial fight was between Bright Hope and Temple," he said. "They awarded us the building and we had to find someone to fund it, so we found the Goldenberg Group."

The man, who has held a leadership position in the church, added: "There was an announcement [in church] that the partnership was dissolved. A lot of people were upset about it."

Kevin M. Trapper, a Goldenberg vice president, said in an interview that the financial restructuring was done to help the church.

"A partnership can take many different shapes and forms. It depends on the deal, but we always try to benefit the local community," Trapper said.

"We purchased [the school] in 2008 and income will start flowing in September 2014," he said.

Nearly a year ago, in February, the church presented Kenneth Goldenberg with its inaugural "Vision of Hope" award recognizing "community service, a commitment to minority business enterprise and economic development."

In presenting the award, Johnson called Goldenberg "a trailblazer with an impeccable track record of completing developments that have transformed neighborhoods and changed lives here in North Philadelphia, throughout the region, and abroad."

"Ken is a builder and a dreamer. He's more than a developer - he's a developer with heart."

Johnson did not respond to a Daily News email that asked him to explain why the church is seeking another property to build a school instead of using part of the Wanamaker site.


On Twitter: @ValerieRussDN

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