Expansion and relocation plans for Green Woods in limbo

Spring is in bloom all around the Roxborough campus of the Green Woods Charter School, but the fate of the school and its proposed new home in Chestnut Hill are, for now, in limbo.

At the current campus, Green Woods administrators are waiting on both School Reform Commission approval of their charter expansion to increase student enrollment, and a go-ahead from the Chestnut Hill Historical Society for renovation plans of their proposed new home at the empty Greylock Manor estate.

On the first matter, Green Woods CEO Jean Wallace said she’s hoping the charter expansion will come at the SRC’s April 27 meeting and says she has “no reason to think the approval won’t come.”

Also, Greylock Holdings LLC, which owns the property at 209 W. Chestnut Hill Ave., has submitted official requests to the historic society for amendments to historic preservation easements the school needs to convert the empty mansion for its use, she said.

Neither is a given.

The SRC has already delayed approvals for charter expansions more than once, and Green Woods is among several schools awaiting word. At several public meetings and most recently, in dueling letters to the Chestnut Hill Local, neighbors of the new site are taking sides for and against the school’s possible move to Greylock Manor.

Taking sides 

Some have expressed a strong desire to see a new public school alternative with room for more kids, calling it the kind of move that can keep young families from fleeing the city for public schools in the suburbs. Others say the already-crowded streets around the site at 209 W. Chestnut Hill Ave. would be further choked by the up to 200 car and bus trips in and out of the school each day.

“These long-standing [historic] easements have been a matter of public record, yet some persons, and/or institutions, now seem to believe that they should be discarded,” wrote neighbor Ulrich Hiesinger to the Local. “Conservation easements are not like bumper stickers that can be slapped on a property and then casually removed.”

Hiesinger and several others opposed to the Greylock move formed the Chestnut Hill Landmarks Committee, a “civic and educational group” aimed at blocking the school’s move.

[That move then sparked a snarky response from yet another letter-writer, calling for a group called Chestnut Hill Agnostic, made up of those who aren’t sure forming so many groups is a good idea.]

Awaiting approval

Currently chartered for 225 students with one classroom per grade for kindergarten through 8th grade, Green Woods seeks to eventually grow to three rooms for each grade level, about 675 students. To do so, the mansion itself would need extensive rehab work and have several new classrooms built under an existing front terrace area. Further alteration would absorb the carriage house into the new design and create a nature pond out front to be used for hands-on learning.

The school first needs approval from the historic society to expand the existing driveway and change it from asphalt to a porous material which the school says will improve drainage and be more environmentally friendly. Another easement prohibits altering the building’s facade, while others address the amount of traffic the site can draw and what can and can’t be done with the expansive front lawn.

Wallace said the curriculum and goals of Green Woods – environmentally-based service learning – won’t change when the school moves. Yet the two properties have little in common.

Breaking the isolation

Since its founding in 2002, the Green Woods school has been located in a compact building adjacent to the the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, deep within a rambling, wooded 325 acres off Hagy’s Mill Road in Roxborough. It’s a rustic setting, now under the protection of the Natural Lands Trust, where the sounds of students at recess mix with a chorus of frogs cavorting in the natural pond out front, and the city seems very far away.

That seclusion is a mixed blessing, Wallace said. While being in a natural setting is important to the school’s educational mission, so is being engaged in the community. It’s hard to be a good neighbor, she said, when you have none.

“The idea of being here in this setting in the woods is wonderful, but we have been truly isolated back here,” Wallace said.

Greylock Manor, by contrast, backs up to Fairmount Park but is itself a tidy, 6.7-acre parcel. Built in 1909 as the lavish home of Pittsburgh steel magnate, the 18,000 square-foot, three story main house has white marble stairs, leaded glass windows and millwork in mahogany and oak.

Restoring the historic property, Wallace said, would itself be an object lesson for Green Woods students about adaptive reuse and stewardship.

“We’re trying to say that for the next 100 years or so, we’re going to enhance this property,” she said.

City records show Greylock Holdings, LLC bought the property in 2004 for $1.6 million. While the building has been empty since 2008 and both the city water department and PGW won judgments in recent years for unpaid bills, the $31,968 annual property tax bill is current, city records show. As the charter school is a non-profit, Green Woods’ purchase of the property would likely remove it from the city tax rolls.

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