After two years of silence and mystery surrounding the fate of Germantown High School, local developer Jack Azran acknowledges he probably slipped up.
“I guess we kind of made a mistake,” Azran told The Inquirer on Thursday afternoon. “People don’t like the unknown."
For the last several years in Germantown, “the unknown” has dominated meetings and conversations. It’s fueled speculation and anger. Residents have wondered how a hulking, nearly one-block-long former school campus could be allowed to sit blighted and vacant for so long.
And they have wondered many times why there was no one they could ask.
Since 2013, that has largely been the story of Germantown High, the century-old former Philadelphia public school building known for its stately columns. That year, Philadelphia school officials voted to close Germantown High along with 22 other schools amid an escalating budget deficit. At the time, parents and residents protested, fearing the potential impact on students and neighborhoods. Still, the properties across the city ultimately sold.
For a brief time, it seemed, there was some clarity for Germantown. A Bethesda, Md.-based developer, Concordia Group, in 2014 put Germantown High into a purchase agreement with four other city schools, including the nearby Fulton Elementary School, for a total price of over $6 million. The plan was for development, though clear details never emerged.
In 2014, Point Breeze residents filed a legal challenge against the School Reform Commission’s approval of the sale to Concordia, stopping the development group from moving forward. Then in 2017, Commonwealth Court ruled that the sale could go through. By that time, Concordia’s interests had moved elsewhere, Devin Tuohey, a principal at Concordia said Thursday, including to the old Mount Sinai Hospital site in South Philadelphia, where the group was partnering to build new townhouses.
Tuohey said Concordia decided that year to transfer the entity that had purchased Germantown High — 5901 Germantown Avenue Investment Partners LLC — to Azran, the Philadelphia developer, before Concordia ever closed on the property. (A similar entity, 56 East Haines Street Investment Partners LLC, was similarly sold to Azran for the Fulton school, too.) Even so, state records show, paperwork to change the address for both LLC entities to an address linked to Azran was filed on April 24 of this year, roughly two years after Azran was said to have taken control.
For two years, Germantown residents attempted to contact Azran, with little success, they told The Inquirer this year. Meanwhile, violations from the Department of Licenses and Inspections, including for overgrown weeds and garbage, were issued for the property. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes stacked up against both Germantown High and Fulton Elementary. A sheriff’s sale had been scheduled for Germantown High next week so the city could collect what it was owed.
Then, on Monday, residents got what they had long been seeking: Azran, standing before them, to explain his plans.
At a packed meeting at Janes Memorial United Methodist Church in Germantown, which was attended by Councilwoman Cindy Bass, Azran explained that it is too early to formulate an exact plan for the site, according to PlanPhilly and WHYY, though he said the development would include housing. He told the crowd that he had resolved his back taxes and that the sheriff’s sale was postponed. According to WHYY, he blamed a city assessment error for the unpaid debt.
On Wednesday, city spokesperson Mike Dunn confirmed that the scheduled sheriff’s sale for Germantown High had been postponed until Sept. 18 “to allow [the Office of Property Assessment] to have time to process revisions” to the accounts for the two properties. Dunn noted that Azran still owes more than $427,000 in back taxes for Germantown High. City records show that he also owes more than $244,000 for Fulton Elementary.
“While [those figures are] currently correct, the revisions could lead to a change in the amount owed,” Dunn said.
On Thursday, Azran said he owes roughly $21,000 in back taxes — a number that he said comes from the city adjusting the properties’ assessments, a request that “I think Concordia started,” Azran said. He said he planned to make a full payment Friday or “at worst Monday.”
Dunn said that as of late Friday afternoon, nothing in the city’s record-keeping system indicated payment, but that the transaction wouldn’t necessarily show up immediately.
“You hear all of this negative stuff ... and things get blown up, but we’re addressing the Germantown situation,” Azran said, adding that he believes he has had “enough bad publicity.” He continued: “We’re keeping the grounds clean.”
Behind the scenes for the last two years, he said, he has been working to assemble a team of architects and “had a couple of meetings with Cindy Bass.” According to WHYY, outreach by Bass’ office to Azran had gone unreturned.
The meeting at the church on Monday, Azran said, was an “initial introduction of who we are and giving a sense of comfort to the neighbors." He added that he thought the meeting “went very well.”
“I guess we should have informed them,” he said, referring to what he said was happening behind the scenes. “But it’s never too late.”
Azran said that “in a perfect world," the development of Germantown High would start in 2020, adding that development would happen in phases. While his plans aren’t concrete, he said he is “trying to get an educational piece in there, trying to get work-live spaces ... incubator spaces as well.”
“Regular living, maybe some senior [housing] — this is all up in the air,” he continued. “We’re just kicking ideas around right now, but it’s definitely primarily residential.”
He added that he has experience converting schools into residential units and is “just wrapping up” a project to convert the former George W. Childs Elementary School at 17th and Tasker Streets in Point Breeze into apartments. That project, which he developed under the entity Metal Ventures Inc., was issued a rental license in December, property records show.
As for Germantown, Azran said his team has set up a Facebook group and email address to better communicate with residents. The Facebook page is called “Germantown HighSchool Developers.” The email: firstname.lastname@example.org.