Selling gentrification to neighbors of the old West Philadelphia High School building

     The West Philadelphia High School building is located at 4700 Walnut Street. (Nathaniel Hamilton/for NewsWorks)

    The West Philadelphia High School building is located at 4700 Walnut Street. (Nathaniel Hamilton/for NewsWorks)

    The Philadelphia School District and City Council are all but ready to sell the former site of West Philadelphia High School, which closed in 2011. With the character of the neighborhood tied to the fate of the building, residents are curious and cautious.

    After nearly two years of back and forth, the Philadelphia School District and City Council are all but ready to sell the former site of West Philadelphia High School, closed in 2011. The buyer is Brooklyn-based developer Andrew Bank of Strong Place Partners.

    Bank hopes to create a mixed-use loft apartment complex at the site on the corner of 47th and Walnut streets, serving an estimated 250 residents with an average price of $800-850 per one-bedroom apartment.

    On May 30, City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell convened a forum at Lea Elementary School for community members living in the area bounded by 45th and 50th streets and Market and Spruce streets to address Bank with their concerns about the building and additional changes to the neighborhood’s zoning policies.

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    The ‘G’ word

    As Bank stated that young residents at the beginning of their careers, associated with nearby Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania, would be the target demographic for the residence, the forum sparked a conversation about gentrification in the West Philadelphia neighborhood at the edge of University City’s expanding borders.

    “Gentrification in Philadelphia is really problematic,” said one long-time resident of the neighborhood, who wished to remain anonymous. “It seems like a natural process. I don’t really know what can be done about it.”

    Some community members welcomed the new apartments into the neighborhood, claiming that the influx of residents studying and working at the universities would help lower crime.

    “With more foot traffic in the neighborhood, I think crime will go down,” said Alfonso, a 26-year resident of the neighborhood. “Plus, the building’s an eyesore as it is right now. No one’s cleaned up the trash or the shrubbery since they closed the school and the area is poorly lit.”

    “I look at Baltimore Avenue now and I see so many different kinds of people,” said Shawn McGeth. “Everyone’s living in harmony. But I don’t want to see people being pushed out of their homes because of affordability. I wish there was some kind of sliding rent scale for the new apartments.”

    Enough community engagement?

    Others gathered at the forum criticized the proposal and Bank’s community engagement efforts.

    “I’m upset because they haven’t educated the community about the project at all,” said Jason Custis, a neighborhood resident of 45 years and a committee person. “It’s irresponsible to have college students moving into an area with a crime problem without cleaning it up first. Since it used to be a school, the apartment complex should have a recreation or tutoring center so kids in the community will have something to do other than making mischief on the corner.”

    “Why does it have to take college students and young people to make our neighborhoods better and safer?” asked one resident who wished to remain anonymous.

    While Bank said that this was eighth and likely final community meeting about the development, some community members claimed that they hadn’t heard of any of the other meetings.

    “I didn’t hear about any other meetings,” said Anthony Gaines, a resident of the neighborhood for 46 years. “There needs to be more communication about what they’re doing in the neighborhood. Maybe there’s a hidden agenda. Sometimes these folks have already decided what they’re going to do. Our voice isn’t as strong as theirs, but they still have to pretend that they’re involving and hearing us.”

    “There’s been a lot of meetings and plenty of opportunities to get involved,” said Bank. “But you can’t come in the 11th hour with a whole bunch of new issues.

    Questions about affordability

    At one point in the meeting, a man stood up and asked Bank: “What about the poor black people in this community who have lived here for years?”

    As Bank began to address the man’s question by pointing to the influx of new businesses in the neighborhood, the questioner interrupted.

    “Stop BSing me and stop BSing my community,” he said as he walked out the auditorium door.

    Bank eventually responded to the man’s question at a later point in the forum by stating that, while New York City has a 80/20 policy that facilitates affordable housing units for new development, a similar policy does not exist in Philadelphia.

    “If the School District wanted to allocate a certain percentage for affordable housing, they would’ve had to have given us that information up front,” said Bank. “It would’ve been easy for them to say that 20 percent of the units would only be able to charge a certain amount. And then I’d say, ‘Well, our purchase price was originally x and now our purchase price will be x minus y.'”

    A tradeoff for parking

    Community members spent much of the forum questioning Bank about the proposed building’s relationship to job creation, recreational facilities, the School District, taxes, affordable housing, crime, and retail. Parking, however, turned out to be principal area of concern for those in attendance.

    “The big question that everyone has in this area is parking,” said Mr. Gaines. “With seniors moving out and college students moving in, they’re going to have an issue. It’s going to get congested. These folks don’t care about the effect it will have on the community.”

    Bank first addressed concerns about parking by suggesting that there was sufficient parking around the building and that underground parking was financially unfeasible before turning to the likelihood of residents with vehicles.

    “But the type of resident moving into this building probably won’t have a vehicle,” said Bank. “These people are early on in their careers, and there’s great public transportation all around the vicinity. … Yes, it will be more inconvenient to park on 48th Street, but wouldn’t it be great if there were three new restaurants? Everything in life is a tradeoff.”

    Preserving some history

    Twenty-seven public schools were built in Philadelphia between 1866 and 1911, culminating in the construction of West Philadelphia High School, the first neighborhood school in Philadelphia. Noting the school’s long history, Bank hopes to preserve much of the exterior architecture of the building and offer an employment preference to residents from the neighborhood.

    While Councilwoman Blackwell supports Bank’s project, she concluded the forum by criticizing the School District’s handling of the process of selling off closed public schools.

    “At the first meetings with the School District, they said the repurposing of West Philadelphia High School was going to be for a school, then they said for community use, and then they said everything, like commercial,” said Blackwell. “They deny they ever said it. Now, they got other buildings up. But all they want is m-o-n-e-y.”

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