At last, for Germantown residents, there was an end to the silence.
Northwest Philly packed the pews of Janes Memorial United Methodist Church on Monday evening when, after two years, they finally landed a public meeting with the owner of the now-closed Germantown High School building and neighboring Fulton Elementary.
They’re two of seven properties still sitting vacant after the district shut down 22 schools amid a budget crunch in 2013. Sold in 2017 to a Maryland-based development group for $100,000, a fraction of its assessed value, GHS was quickly — and quietly — transferred to a local developer, Jack Azran.
Since Azran took ownership of the property two years ago, he’s neglected to pay taxes on the 530,000-square-foot building. It’s now up for sheriff’s sale, and he owes more than $400,000 in back taxes, according to city records. Persistent outreach to his team — even by District 8 Councilwoman Cindy Bass — has gone unreturned.
On Monday, neighbors got to hear Azran’s vision for the pair of huge, historic buildings.
The plans unveiled were presented as first drafts — Azran insisted it’s just too early in the process to formulate an exact plan for the site. But the one thing he was sure of is that Germantown High’s future will include housing.
Azran couldn’t say how many residential units would be developed, or whether they’d be affordable or market-rate, but they’ll be there. And he ambitiously insisted he’d meet a one-to-one ratio for parking spots to apartments.
“We have a lot of open space, a lot of open area right now, and a lot of open land,” Azran said. “I don’t think parking is going to be an issue for what we are putting through here.”
Azran also said he’s already resolved his back taxes and that the sheriff’s sale will be postponed. He blamed a city assessment error for the unpaid debt.
The developer added that he’d like to create some space for a community college, a high school or a local hospital to operate within the building — making education and healthcare more accessible to Germantown neighbors.
Everything came couched in a caveat: “It’s all a process, and it isn’t going to happen easily,” Azran said.
All of this fell on simultaneously curious and skeptical ears.
“That had to be 300 people in there,” said longtime resident Yvonne Haskins, 81, about the meeting. “I think they got the message that people in this community really care about that building.”
Care might be an understatement. Hundreds of people funneled into the church, many of them alumni of the high school. They described their dreams for the 115-year-old building — and their lasting fear that ultimately, the developer would ghost them again.
A $30 million construction project
At the outset, a rep for the developer presented a few preliminary ideas for the massive property on Germantown Avenue near Haines Street.
It could include some event space, some art studios, some offices for small businesses, some classrooms, perhaps even a food pantry and an auditorium open to the public, mused project architect Janice Woodcock, in addition to the residential component.
In all, Woodcock estimated the project will cost $30 to 40 million.
She called out the Bok redevelopment as an example of the kind of work she’s trying to do now. Mimicking that South Philly shared-space project is the “common thread in all our ideas,” Woodcock told the audience.
There wasn’t much the developers could say with certainty about the high school’s future. But he promised to maintain the historic property as best he could — since he’s incentivized by the federal historic tax credits he’ll get to do so.
“I want to emphasize we’re at the beginning of the design process,” Woodcock told the crowd. “We want to hear everything you have to say to us.”
‘These guys are going to just disappear and become a ghost again’
Most Germantowners agreed that Azran’s initial ideas sounded alright. But after two years of radio silence, there’s a lingering feeling among them that he’ll once again drop off the face of the planet.
During the hour-and-a-half Q&A session — which sustained a consistent queue of questioners from beginning to end — dozens of community residents asked for a firm commitment that the development team would be back. Neighbor after neighbor asked the developer to present more concrete plans to the community as soon as he had them.
Neighbors requested Azran sign a community benefits agreement, or at least start a website or a Facebook page to keep them updated.
“We just want to make sure people are not misleading us,” Haskins said. “Most people are thinking these guys are going to just disappear and become a ghost again.”
“The neighborhood is skeptical about people coming in,” said Lois Bruckner, 64, who lives four blocks from the shuttered school building. “I hope that they’re serious about community involvement, because we know what we need and we know what we want.”
Residents floated their own aspirations for the site, like affordable housing units and programs that create educational opportunities and jobs for the community. Councilwoman Bass echoed their sentiments.
“At the end of the day, I certainly hope that affordable and low-income housing is a part of it,” Bass said to the audience. “We have a severe crisis in the city of Philadelphia and we need to address it.”
Diversity and preservation concerns
Azran took heat at one point when he told the audience he planned to hire a workforce that included 10% contractors of color to rebuild the site. In a city with a nearly 40% black population, neighbors asserted the one-in-10 promise wasn’t good enough.
“We will not do this project with 10% or even 20% minority participation,” Bass said. “We are going to make sure that [minority exclusion] does not happen here.”
Meanwhile, members of the hosting congregation worried what impact the development of the high school could have on their church.
“We’re surrounded by that building,” said church member and Germantown resident Medford Pinkett. “If they do any demolition, one of our concerns is, this is an old structure. What will it do to us?”
So what’s next? The development team says it’ll take the community feedback into account, and will have a legit plan to present in June or July.
To stay engaged, some community residents formed the Germantown Fulton Campus Coalition. So far, the group has set neighborhood goals for the site, shared information and pestered the developers regularly for up-to-date information.
“We have a mailing list now with a couple hundred people on it already,” said Emaleigh Doley, deputy director of the Germantown United CDC. “We’re making sure we really are bringing the community together.”
“We appreciate getting this meeting,” said longtime neighbor Haskins. “But we need to keep their feet to the fire.”
Plan Philly’s Jake Blumgart contributed reporting.