PennDesign students develop a model for managing closed school buildings

This June, 23 Philadelphia public schools will be closed for good, adding around 65 acres to the city’s already heavy burden of vacant land. For the city, dealing with these soon-to-be-empty buildings is just one facet of the ongoing crisis in public education, a consequence of population loss, competition from charter schools, and civic disinvestment at all levels of society.

Students, parents, and public school advocates have fought hard to keep some schools open, but nearly two dozen will shut their doors this summer, leaving a physical void that the city cannot ignore: in all, 32 public school buildings will sit vacant in Philadelphia at the end of this school year. Accepting the current closures as an accomplished fact, a group of graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design has developed a model for how the city and school district might go about selling or finding productive new uses for these empty buildings.

Eight recent graduates of Penn’s master of city planning program participated in the Philadelphia School Reuse Studio this spring. The studio was led by Harris Steinberg, director of PennPraxis, the “applied research arm” of PennDesign. [In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that PlanPhilly is a project of PennPraxis.]

The report produced by the students suggests a comprehensive public process for selling, adapting, or otherwise disposing of the closing schools, which sit in varying physical conditions and in vastly different neighborhoods across the city. According to Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger, who attended a recent presentation of the students’ report, their suggestions closely mirror the city’s own preliminary thinking about how to implement a school disposition and reuse plan. His office is currently working with the School District on an adaptive reuse plan for the closed school properties, though neither Greenberger nor representatives of the District offered specifics about what that plan entails.

The studio report lays out a fairly tight timeline to find buyers, tenants, or civic reuses for the closing schools—before the end of Mayor Michael Nutter’s tenure in 2015. It suggests the immediate formulation of a School Reuse Task Force, composed of the office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (Alan Greenberger), the city’s Chief Education Officer (Lori Shorr), and the Philadelphia School District’s Department of Real Property Management.

A task force staff would begin conducting market research and community engagement this summer, with the intention of giving residents of neighborhoods with closed schools a way to participate meaningfully in the disposition and reuse process.

The city planning students recommend breaking the closed schools into three tiers. The top tier would include schools that have a reasonable chance of being sold outright to developers. Those schools would remain under the District’s ownership and follow a disposition process roughly similar to the one the District is currently using, which involves a request-for-qualifications and request-for-proposals process and direct marketing to developers.

The middle tier would consist of properties that are unlikely to be sold without financing deals from the city, and the report recommends that the task force develop creative packages to both attract developers and guide the eventual reuse of the buildings in a way that would benefit the surrounding communities.

The lowest tier would include buildings that are unlikely to be sold at all, and for which the city should consider demolition or giving the properties to nonprofit groups for nominal amounts, according to the report. The students recommend that sites where building demolition makes the most sense could be converted into parks or open spaces.

The report also recommends that a city agency immediately acquire from the School District the buildings in the two lower-market tiers.

As the report states, “Paying for the costs associated with school closures is not optional; the only choice is between paying for school vacancy, and paying for a process that moves school buildings back into productive and often tax-paying reuse.”

Among the other findings of the report:

  • Around 1/3 of Philadelphians live within half a mile of a closed or closing public school
  • Three quarters of the areas surrounding a closed school experienced population decline between 1990 and 2010
  • 88 percent of households within half a mile of a closed school have income below the citywide average
  • The non-white portion of the population in neighborhoods with a closed or closing school is greater than the non-white portion of the citywide population
  • At the end of the 2013 school year, there will be 101 acres of vacant land comprised of closed school buildings

Possible reuses

The report, called “New Life for Old Schools,” includes four detailed case studies of what might be done with individual school properties.

The Fairhill School, according to the report, sits on a nearly three-acre parcel and includes two closing buildings with around 90,000 square feet of space. The population of the surrounding, predominantly Hispanic neighborhood is both shrinking and getting older, the report says. Suggested uses for the site include affordable housing for seniors, a medical clinic, a workforce training center, and recreational space.

For Germantown High School and Fulton Elementary, students proposed senior apartments and assisted living, a community gym, continuing education facilities, and art classrooms. For North Philadelphia’s Vaux High School and Reynolds Elementary, the report recommends a multi-phased development of affordable housing and retail space.

At the 90,000 square-foot Sheridan West Academy in Port Richmond, Penn students developed a proposal for a local food hub, including commercial kitchens, café space, and offices. It also includes even more specific uses for aquaponics—the combined cultivation of waterborne animals and plants—a microdistillery, and even a kombucha brewery. The proposal is intended to capitalize on the local, sustainable food movement and the city’s vibrant food culture.

Elana Taubman, one of the students who worked on the Sheridan West reuse proposal, said the food-hub idea was based on The Plant in Chicago—a repurposed meatpacking facility—as well as the shared commercial kitchens operated by The Enterprise Center in West Philly.

“We wanted to be specific enough that someone could actually take this and kind of run with it …” Taubman said.

The report is careful to stipulate that the case studies are simply detailed explorations of possible uses for some of the closed schools and their surrounding environments, and that any official proposal would only be formed after extensive research and civic engagement. The design studio also tried to form its school reuse recommendations wherever possible to align with other development and planning initiatives, such as the Philadelphia2035 Citywide Vision.

The students wrote, “These site case studies should be considered illustrative rather than prescriptive or in any way restrictive: it is our deeply-held conviction that all closed schools should be reused in such a way as to balance market- and community-driven concerns while advancing citywide goals—not to serve the particular agenda of any group or lobby.”

Involving affected communities

Assuming the city initiates a civic engagement process like the one the students recommend, it is going down a difficult road. Students, families, and residents of neighborhoods with closing schools have been justly outraged at the demise of these community assets, and are not likely to immediately warm to the sale or repurposing of the school buildings, no matter how interesting or beneficial the reuse proposal is. Harris Steinberg said that the city doesn’t have a choice.

“This would be very difficult, but I don’t see any way around it,” Steinberg said. “You have to do this to come up with a successful process in the end, because these are significant assets that affect the lives of people …”

The city conducted civic engagement during the zoning code reform process and continues to do so in the ongoing district remapping, but the impending closure of a specific building is bound to involve a much more detailed, concrete discussion.

“While many neighborhoods might want it to remain a school, and obviously that would be ideal, the reality is for the most part they’re not going to be …” Steinberg said.  

Steinberg, who has done civic engagement work with PennPraxis for planning projects like the Civic Vision for the Central Delaware, said that the first and most important thing to do is understand what uses are possible for the buildings and convey that information fully and honestly to the affected communities.

“We have found in our work that the more structured the civic engagement, the more targeted it is, the more focused on real-world problem solving—as opposed to just pie-in-the-sky ‘I want X, Y, or Z”—the more trusted relationship you’ll develop with the citizens, who then will take the time to actually do the work because they know it’s real, it’s authentic,” Steinberg said. “You’re inviting them in to problem-solve rather than just give their wish list, which, you know, in the end is really sort of meaningless because it’s not based on anything that’s informed …”

Alan Greenberger, who is working on developing the city’s plan, agreed that transparency is the most crucial element of public outreach.

“I want people to be really straight with people about what can happen and can’t happen,” Greenberger said. “There are a lot of uses that we and community members can invent as being idealistically good things to do. The question is: are they realistic? … I want to be straight with people about that. I think that’s the only thing I can think of to do is be straight with people about what the possibilities are …”

Susan Fetterman, Assistant General Counsel for the School District, said that she and other District representatives met several times with the PennDesign students, both to hear their recommendations and inform them about the District’s experience with attempting to sell twelve already-closed properties. Fetterman said the students’ presentation was “very thoughtful,” and that their report contained some “extremely useful elements.” The District is working on ways to balance its own interest in plugging a massive budget shortfall and the community’s interest in seeing the closed buildings returned quickly to productive use.

“The School District properties are owned by the public,” Fetterman said. “They’re public buildings, and the use and benefit to the community are extremely important.”

The District and Deputy Mayor’s office are aiming to present an adaptive reuse plan to the School Reform Commission soon, though they couldn’t say exactly when that plan would be ready.

“I think the work that [Penn’s] students did was excellent,” said Alan Greenberger. “These are smart young people who I think did a wonderful job going as far as they could take it. For us, the great thing about having students look at these problems is that it gives us a little bit of thinking time. You just get to look and think about what they’re saying, how their analytics are working—it’s time that is hard to get in government.”

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