University City High School / AxisPhilly photo
University City High School / AxisPhilly photo
Drexel University has its eye on University City High School. The school at 36th and Filbert streets in West Philadelphia was just one of 23 Philadelphia public schools shuttered in June, but it may be the one that’s least likely to sit empty for very long. The Office of Property Assessment put its value at nearly $23 million, and according to a number of sources, Drexel is not the only entity ready to make an offer on the empty property.
But it may be the only entity ready to make an offer that includes opening a new public school. Last year, the Philadelphia School Partnership made a grant to Powel Elementary, a small K-4 school near 38th and Poweltown Ave., to plan for its expansion and possible relocation. The planning involved Drexel University and Science Leadership Academy, a public high school that is itself a partnership between the School District and the Franklin Institute.
“Drexel has been in planning for almost a year now about how to support the Powel school,” said Lucy Kerman, Drexel’s Vice Provost of University and Community Partnerships. “How do we expand that to create more classrooms at Powel and create a middle school? What would a school be like that would address the potential in this neighborhood?”
Kerman said that the university was previously looking at relocating Powel to the nearby site of Drew Elementary School, also closed, but is “very interested” in making an offer on the University City High School property.
Currently there are several possibilities for the disposition of closed public schools in general and for University City High in particular. The Nutter Administration had been working with the School District since spring on a plan to sell and otherwise reuse the surplus school properties. That plan includes categorizing properties according to their “marketability,” and using a combination of tactics to sell them to developers or otherwise put them back to use.
In August, Superintendent William Hite announced that the District needed $50 million to even open the remaining schools on time. City Council responded by suggesting that it would transfer the $50 million to the School District in exchange for its surplus property, which would then be sold by the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development.
Council introduced a bill authorizing the $50 million transfer at its first session, but other than that, neither plan has moved forward. Drexel, Lucy Kerman said, is just “waiting for the school district to release the site” so it can submit a proposal.
“There’s great need in this city for high quality education options,” Kerman said. “And we have a great partnership that is more than willing to jump in and create a great school environment, and we’d love the chance to do it.”
The potential buyers aren’t the only ones eager for the vacant school property to be formally put on the market.
“The question is this process, what we’re going to do.” said Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, whose 3rd District includes University City High. “Is the School District going to sell them? ... We need to resolve that question immediately, so we can get the School District the money and have our schools operational.”
“I need it done yesterday,” she added.
Blackwell said she didn’t know the amount Drexel would offer for the school. But its proposal, according to Blackwell and Philadelphia School Partnership director Mark Gleason, is likely to involve demolishing the high school, relocating and expanding Powel Elementary, and building a new middle school, along with other, potentially University-related mixed-use development.
Gleason said the expansion of Powel is likely to involve adding a fifth grade as well as one class for each of the lower grades, a total expansion of approximately 200-250 students. The 6th, 7th, and 8th grade middle school, based on the Science Leadership Academy model, would teach between 350 and 400 students, Gleason said.
“It’s silly that we’re debating who should sell the building when there’s a buyer standing ready,” Gleason said.
Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger, who led the Administration’s plan for reusing closed schools, did not respond to requests for comment for this article. Council President Darrell Clarke’s office noted that Council members unanimously support the $50 million transfer ordinance, and deferred questions about specific buildings to the School District.
“This is an opportunity the city cannot afford to miss,” said Mark Gleason. “You’ve got a willing buyer and partner to help create and expand a great school, you’ve got land that’s owned by taxpayers that’s now vacant, and you’ve got a school district that desperately needs cash. Something should happen quickly here, because it’s a win/win/win.”
Jared Brey is a freelance reporter based in Philadelphia. His work has been featured in Philadelphia magazine, Hidden City, The Philadelphia Inquirer, City & State, and other publications. He covered development, zoning policy, historic preservation, and city government for PlanPhilly from 2011-2016.