Hatching a plan to prevent shuttered Philly schools from turning to blight

Philadelphia is trying to find new life for vacant school buildings or ones that soon will be empty.  

With 23 schools slated to close, a study by the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design looked at ways to reuse the structures. 

Harris Steinberg said the worry is neighborhoods that are losing the schools will get more blight once the buildings are empty. Steinberg is the executive director of “Penn Praxis,” the clinical consulting arm of the School of Design at Penn. 

“The majority of the sites really don’t have that kind of strong market,” he said. “Many are in transitional or weak markets, like Germantown, and some are in areas of the city that really don’t have a high market value.”

Steinberg said in the case of a Fairhill School in North Philadelphia, “it’s in the middle of a very strong Hispanic community which has considerable strengths in terms of social capitol as well as kind of civic infrastructure.”  Steinberg said it’s also a low-income part of the city without many recreational amenities, but a good idea was brainstormed. 

“They came up with a very ingenious way of taking an old reservoir across the street from the Fairhill School, converting that into a soccer field, converting the school into senior housing, creating a workforce development program in some of the ancillary area around the school.”

Steinberg said Philadelphia is not alone: The recession, de-population and the rise of charter schools have many cities around the country facing a similar challenge. 

“It’s one of these things that’s just hit cities kind of upside the head with the recession and with de-population and disinvestment, these structures that we’ve built over time for much larger cities, or much larger populations, with the rise of charter schools school districts are now facing a surplus of schools that are just dragging down the bottom line in terms of their budget,” he said.

Steinberg said no one else has come up with a way to do this, “that’s rational, pro-active and equitable.”

City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown said Philadelphia needs a plan to repurpose the shuttered school buildings so they don’t become the scourge of a neighborhood.

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