Changing Skyline: City ought not rush into sale of school buildings

University City High School occupies valuable West Phila. real estate.
University City High School occupies valuable West Phila. real estate. (File)
Posted: June 14, 2014

Goodness knows, Philadelphia's school district needs to sell its surplus buildings so it can afford to open its remaining schools in the fall, ideally with a full complement of nurses and counselors. But should its money troubles trump everything else the city wants to achieve: livable neighborhoods, affordable housing, pedestrian-friendly design, meaningful open space, a respect for its own history?

Nothing highlights the harsh reality of this single-minded quest for cash as much as this week's battle royal over the sale of the University City High School on Drexel University's western border. Sitting on 14 acres of land, it's the most valuable property in the district's sales portfolio, and one of the largest sites. Based on their push to fast-track approvals, Mayor Nutter and City Council President Darrell L. Clarke see only dollar signs when they look at that dour '70s-era fortress.

For residents in Powelton, of course, the sprawling development site between 36th and 38th Streets represents much more than that. It's the key to sustaining the fragile comeback of their gracious neighborhood, and to repairing the damage done by urban renewal, which rebranded the area "University City." Once chockablock with houses and businesses, the asphalt lot where the high school now sits is the stolen heart of Black Bottom, an African American district that was cruelly razed in 1968 to accommodate the University of Pennsylvania.

Because the city has been taking a relentlessly transactional approach to policy-making lately, the site was put up for sale as though it were nothing more than a used car. Little thought was given to the best use for that publicly owned site: There were no planning studies done, no goals articulated, no guidelines established.

Politics further complicated matters, as Nutter and Clarke tried to control the sale process. The cries of "sell, sell, sell" were so loud that, when Drexel and a developer specializing in biomedical labs offered a high bid of $25 million, the city offered to throw in a zoning upgrade to allow taller buildings.

It is hard to imagine another major city simply selling such a high-profile piece of public land to a private developer, no strings attached. Millions of taxpayer dollars were sunk into this site - first by the federal government through eminent-domain evictions of nearly 3,000 people, then by the city for the construction of the high school in 1971. (Intended as a showpiece, it was deemed a failure after just three years.)

The ink might already be dry on the sales papers if not for Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell. Disturbed that there hadn't been more input from the Powelton Village Civic Association, she reached for the crudest of political tools - councilmanic prerogative - to hold up the sale.

In the media, Blackwell was portrayed as an obstructionist. The long-serving councilwoman certainly has a reputation for gumming up development in her district, for reasons that are often unfathomable to outsiders. But this time I found myself cheering her on. Her motives were absolutely clear.

By temporarily delaying the site's rezoning, she bought time for the civic group to negotiate some guarantees from Drexel and its partner, Wexford Science + Technology. (A final vote is scheduled for Thursday.)

Like the neighborhood groups that battled Children's Hospital over its Schuylkill campus, Powelton residents didn't object to development; they just wanted to protect themselves from its less attractive side effects, like hulking parking garages.

They also feared being cut out of the process. They were concerned that the "plan" being circulated by the developers isn't actually a plan, but a vague concept that could change many times. Yet, in upgrading the zoning, the city was giving Drexel-Wexford carte blanche to eventually build 3 million square feet of offices, labs, and apartments, along with 1,400 parking spaces.

There is actually much to admire in the current Drexel-Wexford proposal. They've pledged to include ground-floor retail (although we don't know how much) and to reestablish the streets lost during urban renewal. Drexel also wants to build an elementary school, on the model of the successful, if controversial, Penn Alexander School.

Sounds nice, until you dig a little. Drexel has demonstrated its urbanist chops with projects like Chestnut Square, lined corner-to-corner with lively retail. But Wexford is the majority partner and its track record is less impressive. It would be responsible for 60 percent of the space.

Wexford specializes in developing "innovation zones," like Philadelphia's Science Center, a lifeless stretch I once described as "a suburban office park that took a wrong exit off the expressway." Wexford vice president Joseph A. Reagan Jr. acknowledges its flaws, and says he wants to do better. Still, Wexford's most recent project, 3701 Market, is a 10-story building with five floors of parking, albeit with a ground-floor restaurant.

Drexel argues that the elementary school and streets are its way of giving back to the public. But Drexel doesn't actually plan to pay for the school out of its own budget; it wants to use tax-incremental financing, a technique that diverts property-tax revenue from the school district. It's not even clear the district needs another school.

Selling a valuable public asset should be seen as a chance for the city to shape its destiny, but instead we're being asked to take the developers' promises on faith. The city has the power to ask for real public benefits: How about setting aside apartments for the working poor, to cushion the coming gentrification? How about guarantees that the park space won't be just clusters of shrubs? How about rethinking all that parking?

The district is still trying to sell two other sprawling school sites on the same scale as University City: William Penn and Germantown. Instead of just "sell, sell, sell," can we also hear, "plan, plan, plan"?


ingasaffron@gmail.com

215-854-2213 @ingasaffron

www.inquirer.com/built

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