Zoning changes OK'd for 1 W. Phila. high school, look bleak for another

Posted: June 05, 2014

CITY COUNCIL moved forward yesterday with zoning changes for the sale of one shuttered West Philadelphia high school, but blocked the sale of another.

Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell unleashed a tirade on an attorney representing Drexel University, the interested buyer of the empty University City High School. Zoning changes that would pave the way for that project were put on hold during yesterday's Rules Committee meeting.

Blackwell accused the would-be developers of not communicating with her, her staff or community members who would be affected. Drexel is offering $25 million for the old high school, with revenues going to the school district.

"If you can't work with me on a project this major, then we need to hold up until we can work together. It doesn't go one way," she said.

"We were prepared to move the Drexel bills, but you're not prepared to work with any of us. There's no community agreement. What do you think this is? Who do you think we are?"

Peter Kelsen, the attorney representing Drexel in zoning matters, said that the university and school district officials want the sale finalized by June 12, a week before Council's final session before its summer break.

"We've got a dilemma here," he said.

"We're concerned that there's a perception we've not been good corporate citizens. I think it's important the committee and the councilwoman recognize that when we got the approval of the school district two months ago, we went full-court press with engaging with the community at that time. None of this has been done behind closed doors."

That date looks unlikely, after Councilman Bill Greenlee, chair of the rules committee, shelved the bill until next Monday.

"I'm mystified by this drop-dead date given by the school district," he said.

"I don't understand the district's hard-core demand. We obviously don't want to endanger any money for the schools, but we want everyone involved as satisfied as possible."

Drexel plans to demolish the existing shell of a building and invest $1 billion in new construction, which would include residential, retail, office and commercial spaces, Drexel's new Wexford Science and Technology Center, and parking spaces for 1,400 cars.

Despite objections to the University City High School project, Council approved zoning changes for the sale of West Philadelphia High School. Strong Place Partners, a New York-based company, has offered about $6.5 million to erect a mixed-use development in that space.

Meanwhile, two proposed hotels made headway yesterday with Council's blessing.

The Rules Committee approved zoning changes to the land surrounding the old Family Court building along the Vine Street Expressway to clear the way for a new Kimpton Hotel in that hulking structure. It also gave the green light to move ahead with the 212-room Study Hotel in University City.

- Staff writer Dylan Segelbaum contributed to this report.


On Twitter: @RuffTuffDH

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