Lower Merion zoning officials on Thursday permitted the French International School, the only school in Philadelphia’s suburbs dedicated to teaching children in French and English, to expand one of its campuses on one of Bala Cynwyd’s main streets.
The 30-year-old school, which purchased unused space at 6 Bala Ave. in July, has a waiting list of students. It proposed combining its 107-student upper school with the newly purchased adjacent property, rehabilitating an empty, 132-year-old stone house and building a one-story, 5,840-square-foot building to accommodate a growing student body.
The township’s Zoning Hearing Board also allowed a zoning exception so that 6 Bala, a residential property, can be used as an “accredited educational institutional” site. No one from the school was present at the meeting.
The school bought the 0.8-acre property before receiving plan approval, expecting that the project would “be able to proceed,” Deborah Willig, a member and former head of the school’s board, said weeks before the decision.
“We’d like to increase our student population by a little bit,” she said.
The kindergarten-to-eighth-grade school, which has a separate lower school campus in Bala Cynwyd, tried last year to relocate the upper and lower schools to the former Charles C. Knox Estate on Sussex Road in Wynnewood, but withdrew its application as some residents resisted the change, citing traffic concerns.
Other residents pointed to the school’s nonprofit status, which exempts it from property taxes in a dense township straining to handle a booming public school population.
“I was upset by the defeat of the Knox proposal,” said resident Mary Sanguine, whose son attended French International from first to fifth grade after the family moved to Philadelphia’s suburbs from France in 2006.
Several township residents, including Sanguine, have lauded the school — which annually charges nearly $20,000 for preschool and $27,000 for eighth grade — calling it a unique institution that emphasizes diversity and tolerance.
It’s a “very good school. Good neighbors, and very community-minded,” said resident Ahren La Londe. “They deserve to expand. Six Bala has been rundown and neglected for years. I am sure that the French school will develop the space mindfully and with consideration.”
The school also anticipates adding a small basketball court, table tennis courts, spectator benches, 25 parking spaces, and a two-way driveway off Bala Avenue that connects to City Avenue, according to its zoning application.
Lower Merion officials are facing rapid growth in the township, marked in recent years by luxury housing developments. They have honed in on what they have called an overhaul of the zoning code, focusing on walkability, preservation of historic buildings and green space, and architectural harmony between modern and older construction.