The old Julia De Burgos high school building has sat abandoned for 12 years at Seventh and Lehigh streets, collecting dirt and falling apart piece by piece. Fairhill has an unusually high number of abandoned buildings. In fact combined with Huntington Park and East Tioga there are 2,200 vacant buildings out of more than 12,000. Residents had written the school off as being just another large building left to rot and they were right, that is, until this year.
This past June the building was finally sold to Orens Brothers Realty for $600,000. A fire which broke out on Aug. 3 of this year stalled progress for the new developments. Now, as long as Orens Brothers Realty gets the financial backing they need, construction should begin in just eight months.
Orens Brothers Realty plan to turn the old building not into just one business but an entire shopping complex complete with a Sav-A-Lot market. “The building, the existing front building is going to be torn down and we’re to be putting in a 38,000 square foot shopping center,” said Scott Orens, one of the founders of Orens Brothers Realty. “One of the things they (Fairhill residents) need is a decent source for food,” said Orens, referring to the importance of the prospective market.
The realty company, which usually does residential development, will be taking on its largest commercial development by remodeling the old school. The new shopping center will include a Family Dollar, a Sav-a-Lot market, a Burger King restaurant and a Kixx sporting goods store. Orens was unsure at this time how much of the building was going to be demolished and how much of the original structure was going to be kept.
Orens hoped that the new shopping complex would help the surrounding homes’ property values. “As developers we are always looking to improve not just the real estate we’re working on but improve the values of the surrounding property,” Orens said.
When the fire broke out in August it set the realty company back but did not deter them. The fire, which lasted more that 11 hours, destroyed the roof but left the concrete and stone interior unaffected.
One of the reasons Orens cites for the extensive time it took the building to sell was the original asking price. “The school board had unrealistic expectations of what they could sell it for. Once they lowered their expectations it was more viable,” Orens said.
The community is not only glad that one of the many abandoned buildings in Fairhill will be put to use, but also because it will stop the drug activity and squatting in the building.
The perimeter of the building is surrounded by a fence, originally installed by its previous owners, the School District of Philadelphia. Now it is maintained by the Orens Brothers, but time and time again it’s been knocked down.
With easy access to large ground floor windows, homeless people as well as drug users were able to get in and have free run of the building. “I’m tired of hearing the clanging,” Ada Ortiz said, referring to the noise of people, whom she called “pipers”, tearing out the piping inside the building.
Ortiz, 21, had lived across the street from the Julia De Burgos school all of her life and save for a short time she spent there at summer camp she’s only known it as an abandoned building. Despite what’s become of it, she still appreciates the beauty of the building. “I used to love it as a little girl because of the way it looks, you know? It looks like a princess’s house and I used to think I’d want my house to look like that when I grew up,” Ortiz said.
The gargantuan building, once Thomas Edison High School, was built in 1903 and like so many abandoned buildings in the Fairhill area, it is architecturally stunning. Its enormous size coupled with its hollow rooms makes the site of the building haunting. Its towers and long windows call to mind a fairytale castle. In 2002, the Julia De Burgos School moved to Fourth and Lehigh streets because the old building was unsafe and unusable.
“Nobody wants to live across the street from any abandoned building,” Orens said.
The fact that one building is getting reused is unusual and exciting to residents. “Anything they make of it will be great,” Ortiz said.