Neighbors begin land use planning with Penn Charter

Officials with the William Penn Charter School in East Falls met last week with nearby residents to share the school’s future land use plans in the Northwest Philadelphia neighborhood.

The meeting, organized by the East Falls Community Council, was the first of several events that will focus on collaborating with major neighborhood institutions to make the planning process in the area more transparent. It’s hoped the partnership will keep residents more informed and included in proposed changes to the East Falls community long before they reach a zoning board.

“We can end up with a process which one creates an ongoing process of good dialogue between these institutions and residents and secondly it leads to information the Planning Commission can take into account in its thinking of land use planning,” said Ted Swenson, an EFCC chairperson.

Over the next year, community members will sit down with representatives from Penn Charter, Philadelphia University and Drexel University to learn more about their master plans. School representatives, members of EFCC, the Philadelphia Planning Commission and neighbors will then work to develop a set of land use guidelines to submit to the city’s Planning Commission for approval.

During Thursday’s meeting, Hal Davidow, Penn Charter’s Chief Financial Officer, explained that future changes to the school’s physical plant will likely be limited.

“We’re not in the same position we were 15 years ago with a very inadequate plant,” said Davidow.

And while the school has expanded quite dramatically during its 100-plus years at its current West School House Lane location, it has now largely run out of room, he added.

“We’re constrained,” he said. “There are no more fields. This building itself can only support the size of the population we have today.”

That’s not to say the private Quaker school isn’t interested in making some modifications to their main campus. Davidow said the school is in the process of developing a new strategic plan for the site, the first since 1997.

Most of the details of that plan remain unsettled, but the school is seriously considering a renovation of its Lower School, which dates back to the mid-70s. There has also been some discussion of adding another playing field and moving the school’s pre-kindergarten program onto campus.

Neighbors in attendance Thursday were largely supportive of the school’s presence in the community, but did express some concerns about Penn Charter’s plans for a series of nearby rental properties. The school currently owns five homes on Coulter Street and Oak Road.

Davidow said there is no plan for those houses except to continue to keep them as investments. Penn Charter currently has no plans to acquire more residential properties, he said.

The next step in the project’s process will be to form a planning committee of eight to ten people that will specifically focus on Penn Charter’s land use issues and further explore resident concerns. Similar committees will be formed at Philadelphia University and Drexel University.

There will also be an advisory committee made up of school representatives, EFCC members, Matt Wysong, the Planning Commission’s Northwest Philadelphia community planner, a representative from Councilman Curtis Jones’ office and neighbors. It’ll be up to that committee to organize public meetings and finalize and submit a report to the Planning Commission.

The community hopes to submit a plan in November. If accepted, the Planning Commission will use it as a reference for future district-level planning in the area as part of Philadelphia 2035, a comprehensive citywide plan.

Philadelphia University and Drexel University will present their future land use plans during EFCC’s next general meeting on Monday.

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