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Roman Catholic High plans expansion: Updates

Trustees fund $2M land deal; classrooms, arts, parking to follow

As part of a significant expansion plan, a group of business people and professionals have helped Roman Catholic High School acquire 1216-32 Wood St. and 321 N. 13th St., a block and a half east of the landmark castle-like boys' school on North Broad St. between Wood and Vine Sts., for $2.065 million. The deal includes a 24,500-sf two-story building previously used as office and warehouse space, and an enclosed parking lot previously used to store U-Haul rental vehicles.

"Roman has purchased the property for expansion of its high school fine arts program, and for additional parking," Michael Barmash, senior vice president at Colliers International, who closed the deal with his colleague Andrew McGhee, told me. There's also plans for classrooms and a new fieldhouse at the existing Broad and Wood campus.

Barmash credited Barry Howard, executive vice president at Philadelphia developer Equus Capital Partners Ltd., and other members of Roman's advisory board, for funding the deal. "Barry led the charge," agreed Dan DiLella, president of Equus and another Roman advisory board member. The Wood St. purchase is part of a larger expansion plan: "We worked out an agreement with the Sunday Breakfast Association to trade a piece of property on their block (farther east) for a piece that completed our block. That allows us to build classrooms on the ground floor (including the site of Roman's current small parking lot) and a fieldhouse on the top floor," Howard said.

"It's pretty neat. But it's not adequate space for all the needs we had. And it would eliminate all our parking," Howard added. "So we have acquired this property on Wood St. about a block and a half to the east. We plan to take the ground floor and use that for parking. The second floor we will use for music and art and choral programs."

Roman had been slated for possible closing by the Archdiocese in the 1990s, as it was shutting down city parishes that traditionally sent parochial-school graduates to Roman and selling the properties for what turned out to be discount prices.

What has changed so Roman is now expanding, instead of closing? Howard credited his fellow advisory board members, including DiLella and lawyers Thomas A. Leonard (Obermayer) and Jerald Goodman (Drinker), among others, for raising funds and making long-term plans since the threatened closing. (DiLella and Leonard went to Roman; Goodman and Howard didn't, Howard said. "The whole point of the board of advisors is to expand the Roman community beyond alumni," he told me.)

Center City's revival has also helped. "Roman is unusual within the Archdiocesan system because it is in Center City and has relationships with all the local institutions," Howard told me. Advisory boards with business and professional members have more recently formed to strategize and fundraise at Conwell-Egan, Archbishop Carroll, and other area Catholic high schools once threatened by falling enrollment.

With the population growing in Center City and nearby neighborhoods, "Roman can easily fill its classes," Howard told me. Long known as a perennial power in high school boys athletics, "over the last 20 years it's done tremendously well in terms of getting kids into good universities," including 8 from last year's class of 225 into the University of Pennsylvania, along with national recognition for moot-court and Latin competitions, among other programs, he said. "With the success, the schools need additional facilities," even though land is expensive in a high-demand neighborhood like Center City.

How much will all this cost? "On the existing campus, the first phase will cost about $3.5 million, the second phase will bring the total to $7.5 million," Howard said. The new property "will be another $3 million to $4 million." He said the committee has raised funds, for "general purposes," from a string of "wonderful donors" led by the Connelly Foundation, legacy of the former Connelly Container Corp. on the Schuylkill.