Plan Philly: Vacant School Buildings Affect Surrounding Communities
A group of young boys shoot a basketball into an aging hoop at the end of a large asphalt school yard. Behind them is the shell of the School District of Philadelphia’s second oldest educational facility, the George W. Childs Elementary School, vacated and locked tight since June 2010.
The brown brick of the immense building, located at 1541 S. 17th St., is weathered. The windows are covered with bars. Graffiti decorates the walls of the building within reach. It’s a sad state for this historic Philadelphia building to be in. The three-story school, which takes up an entire city block, is 117 years old and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.
Childs sits silent because the age of the building was starting to put the school behind the modern educational curve. The students have been moved to the Barratt Middle School, and Childs has absorbed Barratt’s population and name. The only life that remains at the school’s old location is kids playing in the school yard and the music of community gatherings.
“Young guys use it to play basketball, and we have birthday parties and things on the court,” said Quiana Hughes, a resident of the neighborhood. “We host events for the less fortunate, like if the kids need backpacks or something.”
Childs Elementary has moved on, and now the old building is left to deteriorate. This is hardly a unique image. Currently, it is happening in eight different locations around Philadelphia. Eight different schools, which were closed by the School District of Philadelphia, are currently up for sale.
Some buildings, like Childs, have only been closed for a few years. The price tag on these properties reflects their superior condition. Childs is being sold for $1, 25 million. Others, like the Beeber-Wynnefield School Annex, located at 1818 N. 53rd St., have been closed for over a decade. The Beeber Annex is only being sold for $300,000.
“The neighbors wanted to make it a community center because one doesn’t exist around here,” said Euell Neilson, a Beeber Annex neighbor. “They had told us $500,000. That’s just too much money.”
The community tried to raise the money themselves and even hoped to get movie star Will Smith involved because of his West Philadelphia history. Unfortunately, Smith didn’t bite and the community’s dream fell by the wayside. Without the money to buy the building, the neighbors settled for using the adjacent paved lot for parties.
The Beeber Annex was bought by the school district in 1969 in response to overcrowding at the Beeber-Wynnefield Middle School. Today, it is an eyesore on an otherwise well-kept community.
“Kids hang out and roll their blunts there,” said Neilson. “I’ve been trying to sell my house for awhile. [The school] has caused a problem for me. Drug deals have taken place right in front of potential buyers.”
Neilson said that the police welded the metal gate shut for awhile to prevent crime, but the gate was kicked back open shortly afterward.
“This is a gully where no one seems to be watching,” said Neilson.
The Beeber Annex is largely being ignored by police and the school district. The concrete and brick façade is cracking, the chain link fence that surrounds the property is rusting and graffiti covers the doors. The police aren’t stopping people from vandalizing the property and the school district doesn’t seem to be fixing what’s broken. Today, the Beeber Annex is a constant reminder of the positive change the community couldn’t afford to create for itself.
When the Beeber Annex is compared to the Alcorn School Annex in Grays Ferry or the Ada Lewis Middle School in Germantown, which were both closed in 2008, or the Roberto Clemente Middle School in North Philadelphia, which was closed in 1998 in favor of a brand new building, Beeber looks well-maintained.
The empty Alcorn Annex, located at 1325-1349 S. 33rd St.,1325-1349, fits perfectly on the similarly abandoned block adjacent to I-76. The concrete around the windows is crumbling. A chain link fence surrounds the structure to deter breaking and entering. Alcorn is on the market for $750,000.
Ada Lewis was built at 6199 Ardleigh St. in 1973. It was filled with sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders for decades before it was closed due to declining enrollment or asbestos, the reasons are still widely disputed within the community.
The walls of this once viable educational institution are fading. The doors are locked and several windows are broken. They police frequent the area, but they aren’t necessarily stopping crime. Community members like Reverend Chester Williams fear people are breaking in to strip copper or dealing drugs behind the building.
Ada Lewis is being sold for $2.5 million–a large sum for a property that looks like it had been forgotten.
On the other hand, the Roberto Clemente Middle School, located at 3921-3961 N. Fifth St., definitely has been forgotten.
“The windows are gone. The pipes are gone. Whatever was in there is gone. As soon as they stole the first window, I called,” said Cathy Cofield, owner of the Buy or Sell AVON shop across the street. “One time they got snagged. When those people got arrested, they were still going in there. They were back the next day. They don’t care.”
Clemente is literally a shell of a building. Through the holes where windows used to be, nothing can be seen but stripped lighting fixtures and concrete walls. A fence has been put up around the perimeter of the building, but Cofield said it isn’t preventing any crime. Since there isn’t anything left to take, the criminals are resorting to graffiti.
“You call the police and they don’t do anything,” said Israel Mendez, a local shop owner. “I’m not going to go in there and kick some ass myself. They should have torn it down a long time ago.”
That seems to be the general sentiment in this North Philadelphia neighborhood. Cofield said she wishes the building would be torn down to create a parking lot. She said she fears if the building stays the way it is somebody will start a fire that will take out the entire block.
“The ideal is that they do something there because that would help our business,” said Cofield. “It’s a big project, and I don’t think anybody’s going to take it on. They should tear it down or make it safe at least.”
Mendez, who wishes they would turn the building into apartments to bring new people into the neighborhood and raise property values, fears the worst too.
“I want to get out of here before that shit drops,” said Mendez.
Clemente is being sold for $250,000.
There is a stark contrast between school buildings located in wealthy neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods. Alcorn and Clemente are wasting away in forgotten corners of Philadelphia while the Elizabeth Gillespie Middle School at 1801 W. Pike St. gets cleaned once a month by school district employees.
“We clean up the leaves and cut the grass,” said Joe Conti, a school district employee who was trimming the trees around Gillespie. “Graffiti is the biggest problem.”
The school district bought the property Gillespie stands on in 1927. The building was placed on the register of the National Historical Commission in 1988, and was closed in 2009 because of the age and condition of the building. There is still a lot of foot traffic in the area due to the Simon Gratz High School that is located nearby. Gillespie is one of the most expensive properties still on the market at $1.35 million.
The Education Services Building, located at 427-437 Monroe St. in South Philadelphia, is another well-maintained building for sale by the school district. This Queen Village property was acquired by the district in 1971 to house administrative and field offices. The building was closed in June 2011 because the offices were moved.
According to reports done by Benjamin Herold of NewsWorks, there has been a lot of activity surrounding this property since its closure. The Education Services Building sits on a shaded street directly across from the Meredith Elementary School, which is a major draw for young families in the neighborhood.
“Meredith is an oversubscribed school,” Jeff Hornstein, president of the Queen Village Neighbors Association told NewsWorks. “The school district owns a building 50 yards away. So some people have asked why that doesn’t just become Meredith’s annex?”
Uniting Meredith and the Education Services Building seems to be a perfect solution for both properties, but Hornstein told NewsWorks that no one from the district has come to hear community members’ suggestions.
There are reports that there are many parties interested in this $1.2 million property, and it is likely that a buyer will be finalized soon.
It seems that the old adage is true. The most important thing with real estate is location, location, location. A property like the Education Services Building, which is fortunate enough to find itself in a wealthy neighborhood of South Philadelphia, has potential buyers swarming while a property like the Frances Willard Elementary School in Kensington has barely seen any activity at all.
The district built Willard at 2900 Emerald St. in 1907 and closed its doors in June 2010 in favor of a newly built building several blocks away. The old school was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. There is a lot of history behind this oppressive brick building, but that doesn’t seem to be enough.
Willard is on the market for only $250,000, and that is a reflection of the neighborhood it resides in. Kensington is a poor neighborhood where crime is prevalent.
“The interesting thing and the difficulty with these buildings is the location,” said John Binswanger, chairman of Binswanger of Pennsylvania, the broker tasked with selling Willard. “Some of them are in areas that aren’t commercially viable.”
Unfortunately for Willard, Kensington isn’t an area of Philadelphia that is seeing a lot of commercial growth. Until the right buyer comes along, the building will continue to sit like it has for the past two years.
There is a lot of hope surrounding these properties. The people who live with these structures every day have their own ideas about what should be done. There is a lot of potential to create change within these disenfranchised communities, but communication is key. Residents said the district needs to reach out to community members to get a clear picture about what kind of buyer would be the best fit. The people in these neighborhoods said they do not want to be strapped with a development that isn’t suited for their needs.
The School District of Philadelphia did not respond to requests for comment about these issues.
For more information about this issue, visit http://philadelphianeighborhoods.com/2012/12/06/plan-philly-school-buyers-use-different-tactics-with-surrounding-communities/