Germantown High developer reveals plan for live-work-learn destination

A rendering of an apartment proposed for Germantown High. (Woodcock Design)

A rendering of an apartment proposed for Germantown High. (Woodcock Design)

This story originally appeared on PlanPhilly.

Germantown High developer Jack Azran says that apartments with exposed brick walls, shared work spaces and a new school could fill the shuttered school by 2022. That may be all well and good, but neighbors say they want to make sure the redevelopment is accessible to all segments of the diverse neighborhood before any plan is made final.

“We want to see that it is vibrant for the entire community, that it brings life back to this corner,” said Rev. Gregory Holston, who leads nearby Janes Memorial United Methodist Church.

New renderings shared by Azran on Monday show the large vacant building and adjacent Fulton Elementary as a stylish live-work-learn destination with a mix of public amenities, apartments and work spaces, including studios for artists. Conceptual drawings show a food-hall style industrial kitchen, a shared industrial fabrication studio for artisans, inviting green spaces, a school and a cafe. The current vision includes 236 residential units, 24 of which — 10 % of the total — to be offered for rent at 30% below market rate. Plans also include 159 on-site parking spaces. The historic school buildings and the grand lawn will be preserved with no demolitions.

But at a packed public meeting, Germantown residents spoke about the need for affordable housing. Many wanted to ensure that apartments included in the development would not price out working-class residents who have seen rents rise in the area. Longtime resident Andre Carroll stood in line to have his voice heard. He said that Germantown has a median household income of $28,668, and the definition of affordability the developer uses needs to keep that in mind.

“They said they would do 10% affordable housing, but affordable can be very different depending on the individuals you’re speaking to,” Carrroll said.

This rendering shows Germantown High as a mixed-use development including a school, apartments, co-working and a cafe. (Woodcock Design)

The coalition wants Azran to sign a community benefits agreement (CBA) that would hold him accountable for delivering on promises made to neighborhood residents. In other parts of the city, such privately brokered agreements have helped communities influence development.

Darwin Beauvais, an attorney for Azran, said the developer would negotiate a CBA once the design was complete.

Germantown High and nearby Fulton Elementary have sat vacant since Philadelphia school officials shuttered them in 2013. They were purchased by Azran in 2017. Over the last two years, neighbors have grown frustrated by the developer’s silence and lack of progress. Azran met with neighborhood residents for the first time in April to share his desire to transform the large, historic buildings into housing. That meeting ended with many unanswered questions.

Holston said the latest gathering, organized by the Germantown Fulton Campus Coalition, represented progress.

“There are some things they said that were a little bit distressing. But we’re hopeful that through conversation we’ll be able to work those things out … So that it is a benefit to the entire community.”

An architect working with the developer, Janice Woodcock, pitched Azran’s master plan as a response to local desires to see the former school remain an active public gathering place.

“The vision is to balance the residential and non-residential uses so there is a way for the community to still experience the building as an active site,” Woodcock said in an interview Tuesday.

A rendering shows a coworking space in a remade Germantown High (Credit: Woodcock Design)

Some of the master plan’s features, such as the fabrication workshop, resemble offerings at the Bok Building, another former Philadelphia public school that was shuttered, sold and transformed by a developer into a mixed-use building. But unlike Bok, which is in South Philadelphia, Germantown High will be 68% residential.  Four other schools shuttered in 2013 have turned into housing, some affordable and some market-rate.

Azran has experience with Philadelphia schools. One of his companies recently developed apartments at the former George W. Childs Elementary in Point Breeze.  One-bedroom apartments in the former school, now known as The Breeze Building, lease for $1,400 a month.

Woodcock said that Azran will own and operate the Germantown development. “We aren’t going anywhere.” But, she said, Germantown residents must be involved, too.

“We won’t succeed unless the community embraces the project,” Woodcock said. “This project has high potential and we have a huge advantage because the community has such a high regard for the site.”

Getting that support will likely take many more meetings and drawings. Many neighbors remain skeptical. Still, Carroll said he appreciated the neighborhood has a voice in the project.

“I do like the fact that they came with some kind of plan,” Carroll said. “Give us something to counter-argue or have some kind of discussion.”

The neighborhood and developers will meet next on July 10 to agree on a final design.

“They were pretty receptive,” said Azran, and we’re very excited about what’s happening here.”

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