Residents of Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood can all agree on one thing: They want the redevelopment of Germantown High School to benefit them.
Now, however, they must agree on what to ask for.
On Monday night at Janes Memorial United Methodist Church in Germantown, several dozen residents piled into pews to hear the latest news about the $50 million redevelopment of the now-shuttered Germantown High and nearby Fulton Elementary School. The meeting was billed as an update from a coalition of residents who have been formulating an early version of the community’s requests.
Such a draft document — called a community benefits agreement, or a CBA — has increasingly been used in recent years as a bargaining tool by neighborhood groups seeking to ensure that massive development projects provide some benefit to communities. One of the earliest, best-known examples was a CBA struck in 2001 in Los Angeles, when the developer of the Staples Center agreed to hire locally, build affordable housing, and provide “living wage” jobs.
Since then, CBAs have grown in popularity across the country, including in Philadelphia, especially as it experiences an unprecedented development boom. Recently, residents from the South of South Neighborhood Association — representing the area from Broad Street to the Schuylkill, and from South Street to Washington Avenue — successfully negotiated a CBA with developer Noah Ostroff, who plans to build 80 homes and 8,000 square feet of retail space along Washington Avenue. That agreement, according to PlanPhilly, stipulates that Ostroff must cap the rent on some units at 60% of the area median income. In addition, 35% of the contractors he hires must be from minority-, female-, and disability-owned companies, and he must guarantee that some commercial tenants hire from within nearby neighborhoods.
Typically, local developers are willing to sign CBAs with community groups in exchange for resident support for a development — often in the form of zoning. After Ostroff agreed to sign the CBA, for example, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson introduced a bill to change the zoning of the land under the project. The bill ultimately eliminates the need for Ostroff to seek approval from the Zoning Board of Adjustment — a process that can slow a project.
A spokesperson for the city said Tuesday that the city does not keep a count of how many CBAs are signed. It also does not play any role in enforcing them. In June, City Council President Darrell Clarke introduced a bill that would require developers of “high-impact projects” or those “receiving city investment” to negotiate CBAs. That bill remains in committee, and many questions about the legislation linger.
In Germantown, residents are largely seeking standard benefits — opportunities for housing, safety, and economic development — from the development team led by Jack Azran and Eli Alon, who purchased Germantown High and Fulton Elementary in 2017. But Germantown’s needs are even greater than many other communities, and so a wide-ranging list of benefit requests has emerged.
The 19144 zip code, encompassing most of Germantown, has a median household income of $29,505. More than 21% of housing units sit vacant. Residents say major stores and industries are lacking. At Monday’s meeting, one resident stood and said, “I don’t know what we would be without day-care centers and hair shops."
“We’ve found that the majority of the people say they want some kind of education facility, they want some kind of workforce, they want affordable housing ... and anti-crime,” said Joe Budd, co-chair of the Germantown Fulton Campus Coalition, the group of volunteers drafting the CBA.
The Monday coalition meeting marked the community’s first large, public gathering since June, when Azran and his team showcased redevelopment plans for the schools. His team announced a private and public mixed-use development, including 236 housing units, a charter school, cafe, co-working space, and community facilities. The plans included no demolition. No details on the charter school or tenants were announced.
The housing, meanwhile, would include one- and two-bedroom apartments, and average 936 square feet. Prices were not disclosed. The plans included 159 parking spaces for the housing.
Germantown High and Fulton are currently zoned residential. A zoning variance is needed before the developers can pursue their plans.
The June presentation by Azran’s team was a sharp departure from prior years, during which residents struggled to find answers about the fate of the schools, both Germantown fixtures. They were shuttered, along with 21 others, by the Philadelphia School District in 2013, with officials citing declining enrollment and a mounting budget deficit. Fulton and Germantown High were expected to be bought that year, in a bundle with other schools, by the Concordia Group, a Maryland-based developer.
In 2014, however, Concordia faced a redevelopment obstacle after a group of residents filed a legal challenge to the schools’ sale. By the time Commonwealth Court ruled to allow the sale, Concordia’s interests had moved on. The firm decided in 2017 to transfer the entity that it planned to use to buy Germantown High — 5901 Germantown Avenue Investment Partners LLC — to Azran. (A similar entity, 56 East Haines Street Investment Partners LLC, was transferred to Azran for Fulton, too.)
Records show that Germantown High was purchased for $100,000 in 2017; Fulton, for $500,000.
At the Monday meeting, several residents grew angry when the sale prices were discussed. “That’s ridiculous!” one man shouted. Another, visibly exasperated, packed his backpack and stormed out.
The schools’ sale prices have been a point of contention in the community, especially after it was reported this spring that more than $670,000 in back taxes were owed on the properties. That tax bill was ultimately reduced to about $32,000, a city spokesperson said in May, after “recent third party appraisals were completed for the properties.” The parcels that make up Germantown High are now assessed at $100,000, records show; Fulton’s parcels are now assessed at $500,000 — the same as the purchase price for both properties.
A city spokesperson said this week that all back taxes on the properties have been paid in full.
As residents grumbled Monday about the financials surrounding the sale, coalition leaders implored residents to instead unify around the CBA.
“It is vitally important that we understand that we speak as one thought, one group,” said Dennis Montague, an adviser to the coalition’s economic committee. “What diminishes our ability to negotiate is when another group comes in and calls the developer directly to try to negotiate something for themselves.”
After the meeting, coalition leaders said they are still working out details of what they’ll ask for, and hope to have a CBA prepared by November or December. Among the ideas: a mix of affordable and market-rate housing, space for vocational education, and job opportunities.
Azran said Tuesday that his team remains committed to negotiating a CBA with residents.
“Germantown has seen a lot of decline in the economics department ... it’s a shadow of a former self,” said Patrick Jones, co-chair of the coalition’s negotiating committee. “We want to use this project — and any major project along Germantown Avenue — to stabilize that decline. This is Germantown High School, this is a staple to the community ... and whatever goes there should have a strong impact on positive growth in the community.”