A fast moving fire Wednesday destroyed the old Thomas Edison High School, which was scheduled for demolition to make way for mixed-use development. The fire at the building at 7th Street and Lehigh Avenue had reached three-alarms by 2:30 p.m. The cause of the fire is not known but the building was vacant and in great disrepair.
A prime example of a "fortress style school" the 19th-century structure features crenellated towers and a coterie of gargoyles. The original Northeast High School, then Thomas A. Edison High and finally Julia de Burgos Middle School until 2003, the structure is under agreement of sale for $600,000 to Mosaic Development Partners LLC, which specializes in projects designed to revitalize struggling communities.
Mosaic told the City Planning Commission last year that it will demolish the original part of the school to make room for a supermarket and put senior housing in a newer section of the building. For now, though, the site is awash in a sea of discarded tires and newspapers, covered in graffiti and sporting smashed-out windows. “These buildings are often icons in their neighborhoods,” observed architect Joseph Denegre, principal at the Center City firm CDA&I, which has helped update more than 30 District schools. “But, at the same time, they become symbolic of the neglect that those neighborhoods have suffered.”
Last December, the Planning Commission approved zoning Bill 100784, that would change the zoning of the former Edison High School building, located at Seventh, Eighth and Somerset Streets and Lehigh Avenue, from residential to area shopping center and C-3 commercial, paving the way for a plan that would knock down the old high school, which is on the National Historic Register but does not have local historic designation.
The bill that would change the zoning of the former Edison High School parcel was introduced by Seventh District Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez and enacted by Council and signed by the mayor on Jane. 15, 2011. “The school district still owns it, but there is a pending sale,” Planner Martin Gregorski said during the PCPC hearing on Dec. 14. The cost of reusing the building, which is in a state of disrepair and has asbestos issues, is prohibitive, he said. Because the building is on the National Historic Register, any developer would have to go through a historic review process if any federal funding is used, Gregorski said. But otherwise, since there is no local designation, the building can be torn down.
Staff recommended the commission approve the zoning change, with a provision that the developer sit down with the commission to work on improving the project design. At the time, Commissioner Nilda Iris Ruiz, who grew up in the area, said that there is a great need for senior housing there, but she, like other commissioners, were not thrilled with the drive-thru restaurant part of the equation. She also said she knew about environmental problems at the building that would make reuse expensive, and noted that the area is starting to pop with commercial activity, and this development could help that along.
Both she and Trainer suggested the developer hold meetings with the community. “It seems like it would have a huge impact on the community,” due to its size, commission Nancy Rogo Trainer said. Trainer asked if any studies had been done looking at the cost of reusing the historic high school. Gregorski said school district officials told him this was the case.
At the December PCPC meeting, one community member suggested that reuse of the building, a neighborhood landmark, might be possible with grant money. An aide for councilwoman Quinones-Sanchez said that in a series of community meetings, community members also wanted to know, at first, whether the building could be reused. The councilwoman does not think that would be feasible through either public or private development, she said. What everyone at the meetings agreed on is that something has to be done with the building, he said, as it has been vandalized and is used for illegal activities.
After the meeting, Planning Commission Executive Director Gary Jastrzab said that the developer would need water department, zoning and other approvals to move forward with the project. He is also hoping the commission can convince the developer to amend its plans a bit. “There is an opportunity to do something better here,” he said.