The days of laughter and activity ended five years ago for the ornate, terra-cotta and brick public school building in the heart in Sharswood.
The historic Art Deco building at 24th and Jefferson streets, the former General John Reynolds Public School, watched over the neighborhood as properties were seized, old buildings torn down and new ones built as part of a 10-year revitalization effort led by the Philadelphia Housing Authority.
Now, thanks in part to a cleanup grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, that renewal will include the 1920s-built former school, a landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Mayor Jim Kenney gathered with other local and federal officials Thursday to announce the grant and mark progress on a plan to bring life back to the old school. Reynolds Public was one of 22 Philadelphia schools shut down by the school district in 2013.
“The neighborhood looks so, so different than how it was when this whole project started. And, look at the quality of the homes that are being built here, I mean, you couldn’t tell the difference between there or Fishtown or any other neighborhood that’s been redeveloping,” Kenney said.
The $20 million project, undertaken by the national non-profit Help USA with PHA as a partner, reimagines the historic school as housing for formerly homeless veterans.
But before the building can be lived in, it must be cleared of lead and other toxic materials common in old buildings.
The EPA grant to the city totals $300,000 and only a part will go towards cleaning up the Sharswood school.
But tor Help USA’s David Cleghorn, who still needs to raise about $700,000 to turn John Reynolds into veterans housing, every little bit will help with the cleanup.
“We have lead paint, we have asbestos, we have a 80,000-gallon oil tank in the basement,” said David Cleghorn, chief housing officer for the nonprofit organization.
It’s not Help USA’s first experience redeveloping a historic Philadelphia public school. In 2017, the nonprofit worked with PHA to reopen the long-shuttered Spring Garden School as apartments for veterans and people aged 55 and older. Like Reynolds Public, the West Poplar school was built in the Art Deco style and designed by notable Philadelphia school architect Irwin Catherine.
The rest of the EPA grant to the city will go for brownfield assessments, including for affordable housing and community gardens, said Greg Heller, executive director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority and senior vice president of the community investment group at PHDC.
“In terms of building affordable housing one of the challenges that people keep bringing up is that developers have to pay on their own dime for assessment and remediation of environmental issues,” Heller said. “And this being Philadelphia, many of our sites are going to be on brownfields or areas that have environmental issues.”
Heller said it’s still unclear how many projects would be benefited by the grant, or the amount each will receive. But the city’s goal is to have an ongoing funding source for this assessment. For now, the source is the $300,000 EPA grant.
“This new brownfield assessment grant will assist Philadelphia transforming brownfields locations to their highest and best uses,” said Diana Esher, EPA’s acting deputy regional administrator for Philadelphia.
Construction for the new veterans’ housing building will begin in February. They expect the building to open 15 months later, according to the developer.