Neighbors to oppose veterans center on vacant school property at 27th & Wharton

Gustavus Benson public school once sat on site
Gustavus Benson public school once sat on site

A group of residents living near 27th and Wharton streets in Grays Ferry is planning to attend a hearing in City Hall Friday morning to oppose the sale of a vacant lot owned by the Philadelphia School District and slated for redevelopment as a health and services center for veterans.

The half-acre lot at 2630-44 Wharton Street was declared unused and unnecessary by the School Reform Commission in January of last year. It was then marketed to potential buyers by the Flynn Company for a number of months, and in June 2014, the SRC approved the sale of the lot to Campenella Development, LLC, for $500,000.

“The Buyer intends to develop medical offices geared to veteran’s services with a component for veteran housing and ancillary services on the site,” according to the SRC resolution approving the sale.

Bill Fox, the director of real property management for the School District, declined to provide more details on the proposed use. He said Campenella’s bid was higher than any other, monetarily, and proposed a more productive use of the property.

The sale price exceeds the appraised value of the property of $330,000, according to a Pennsylvania Board Certified Appraiser who reviewed the property at the time of the listing. According to the city’s own appraisal, though, the lot is valued at $590,000.

At a hearing before the Court of Common Pleas last week, Claudia Sherrod of South Philadelphia H.O.M.E.S. and a small group of near neighbors told a judge that they hadn’t been adequately notified that the property was for sale. Sherrod said that she knew a developer who was interested in building affordable housing at the site, and would have organized a bid on the property if she’d known it was on the market. Sherrod told PlanPhilly she was “not at liberty” to name the developer.

Properties that the School District sells on the private market need to be approved by the Court of Common Pleas, according to SRC policy. Sherrod and the other neighbors said they hadn’t heard about the sale until a public notice about the court hearing was printed.

The judge at that hearing had the residents state their names, addresses, and objections to the sale to determine whether they had legal standing to oppose the decision. She then scheduled another hearing for Friday, April 17th, at 10 a.m., in Courtroom 232.

The planned veterans’ health center is to be operated by Greater Philadelphia Health Action, Inc., a spokeswoman for the company confirmed. City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who represents the area, says he’s supportive of the planned use.

“GPHA is a quality provider with a proven track record, so I think this concept would be great for this neighborhood as long as the project receives community support through the zoning process,” Johnson told PlanPhilly, through a spokesman. “The School District of Philadelphia marketed this property and received offers from a number of parties. I support the veterans-based use because it will provide services to an under-served population.”

The developer of the property, James Campenella, did not return a phone call from PlanPhilly. Campenella gave $2,500 to Councilman Johnson’s campaign in 2013, according to city records. Royal Brown, the chairman of GPHA’s board, has also donated small amounts to Johnson.

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