Updated 12:25 p.m.
It’s been almost six years since the School District of Philadelphia shut down 23 neighborhood public schools. It was a last-ditch effort to save the district about $24 million per year.
Among the buildings that went dark after the 2012-13 academic year was Germantown High School. And the massive 115-year-old property has sat vacant ever since.
But not for lack of interest. Community members said they once applied to put another school there, but were rejected. Then in May 2017, a developer bought the property — for about 6 percent of its assessed value.
In the two years since he bought it, the developer has been virtually silent about his plans, leaving neighbors in search of information about the future of their former school. Nobody seems to know its fate, including Councilwoman Cindy Bass, in whose district the property falls.
“It’s just been a black hole,” said Germantown United CDC president Julie Stapleton-Carroll. “Now people are feeling strong enough to fight it.”
Who’s in charge here?
It came as a huge surprise to neighbors when they saw an online brochure circulating about the Germantown High School building from a company called MSC Retail. The document seemed to suggest demolishing the school, and in its place constructing one or two big-box stores and roughly 60 parking spots.
And it included a request for potential tenants — calling out by name grocery stores, pharmacies, dollar stores and coffee shops.
Invested Germantowners were shocked, because they hadn’t heard a peep about the sale of the building or been involved in the planning process. To them, the proposal felt like a slap in the face.
“That idea would never fly with the community,” Stapleton-Carroll said. “Nothing’s happening, and we could have so much more.”
The document has since been removed from MSC’s website, and a representative of the company declined to comment on their involvement.
Since the brochure surfaced, neighbors have voiced a ton of questions about the building’s redevelopment: Who’s in charge here? What are their plans? And how’d they score the former high school — which showed a $12 million value on its deed but is now valued at $1.6 million, according to Office of Property Assessment data — for just $100,000?
There’s reason for their confusion. To this day, there’s uncertainty about who even owns the property.
The deed for the sale lists the address of The Concordia Group, a Maryland-based development company. Devin Tuohey, principal at Concordia, said his company then unloaded the LLC that made the purchase onto a local developer named Jack Azran, effectively transferring the ownership of Germantown High School to him.
As for the low sale price, the School District attributes it to the fact that there was a combined sale of five closed school buildings. Spokesperson Lee Whack said the district sold off properties in Pennsport, Point Breeze, Germantown and Port Richmond for a total package of $6.8 million.
Those numbers don’t quite add up. City records show the five properties sold for a combined $6.3 million. When pressed to explain why the Germantown tract specifically was priced so low, Whack didn’t elaborate. The sale prices for the other four schools — from $500,000 to $3 million — are still manyfold more than the listed sale price for Germantown High.
For the last two years, Azran has been unreachable by the community. Stapleton-Carroll said she’s emailed and called him countless times to inquire about his plans, and has yet to hear back. The building has has racked up code violations for trash and vacancy without a license, and owes $70,396 in property taxes.
Meanwhile, Bass confirmed last week that she’s a longtime friend of the developer’s attorney — Darwin Beauvais — and that he recently hosted a campaign fundraiser for her from his firm, Dilworth Paxson LLP. Still, she insisted she knows nothing about the plans for the site.
Both Azran and Beauvais did not return our requests for comment.
To rectify the situation, Bass promised the community that she’d bring the developer in and find out his intentions. She said neighbors can expect a public meeting in the first two weeks of April.
‘Still mourning’ a school’s closure
At the meeting hosted by Germantown United CDC about the school last week, 200 constituents there literally booed Bass, accusing her of participating in a sketchy deal surrounding the building’s development. That’s when Bass yelled back: “I never make a decision that the community doesn’t want! This is a community-driven process, always has been and always will be.”
Bass denies any sketchy dealings with the developer — and attributes accusations of wrongdoing to campaign season.
“It’s election season, so I recognize that it’s also silly season,” she told Billy Penn. “There is an opportunity for folks who want to get at me, this is their big shot.”
It was a passionate Thursday evening at Janes United Methodist Church. The church itself is nestled almost inside the former high school’s property line — with three of its walls adjacent to the building, and its front wall facing out on Haines Street. Neighbors flooded the church for the meeting, filling it to the balcony and into an adjoining room.
Why so much fervor for this particular project?
“I think people are still mourning the loss of the school,” Stapleton-Carroll said. “Schools are really ways to keep communities together, and there’s no high school in Germantown.”
Among residents, it seems the grief has fueled a dedication to transform the nearly 400,000-square-foot property into a community resource. They shared their ideas for the property at the meeting, including:
- A new community school
- A vocational technology program
- An internship program
- Arts and culture space
- Affordable housing units
Idealistic as those proposals might sound, public officials have already acknowledged their merit. In its Philadelphia 2035 plan, the City Planning Commission recommended prioritizing “community-serving uses” for the building — like job-training, education and performing arts. In a potential map of the school, stated goals for the property included affordable rental units and classrooms.
Neighbors remain committed to that vision, said Stapleton-Carroll, despite radio silence on behalf of the developer. The Germantown United CDC is working on forming a committee system to prevent this from happening again. There’d be one committee for outreach, another facility and use — each filled with engaged neighbors who can take action against unwelcome development projects.
“We’re really tapping into different people’s different interests and deploying them that way,” Stapleton-Carroll said. “We just want to keep them honest, and make sure they’re not trying to do things behind our back, because they clearly are.”