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Saint Joseph's University will run original Barnes property in Lower Merion

The advantages to St. Joe's include new art and horticulture classes at a celebrated arboretum while Barnes gets to wipe out a big negative line in its budget while retaining the site. Plans could include an event entrance from City Avenue, which would ease passage on Latchs Lane.

The Barnes Foundation has agreed to lease its Lower Merion Township arboretum and its vacant former art gallery to neighboring Saint Joseph's University, which plans to add classes on the 12-acre site
The Barnes Foundation has agreed to lease its Lower Merion Township arboretum and its vacant former art gallery to neighboring Saint Joseph's University, which plans to add classes on the 12-acre siteRead moreBarnes Foundation

Saint Joseph's University has agreed to lease the Barnes Foundation's next-door arboretum and former art gallery in Lower Merion Township. The price: $100 a year, plus maintenance and security services. The Catholic university has also pledged to spend at least $5 million on capital improvements to the site over the next 15 years.

St. Joe's plans to offer its students art and horticultural classes on the property, effectively adding the 12 acres south of Latchs Lane to its   neighboring 114-acre City Avenue campus, though Barnes will remain the owner.

The pact bars the university from adding new buildings on the property with its "living collection" of 2,500 groups of trees and flowers.

The deal, signed in November by Saint Joseph's president Mark C. Reed and Barnes executive director Thomas "Thom" Collins, will run for 30 years, and can be renewed after that in 20-year installments, until 2107.

It "will ensure the long-term preservation of the Barnes' campus in Lower Merion" and its use for teaching purposes, as the founder ordered, Collins noted in a memo to Barnes staff.

“I can easily see the advantages to St. Joe’s,” said Laura Otten, director of the Nonprofit Center at the LaSalle University business school. “Green jobs are a growing market, and it would take them a long time to establish a program like this on their own, so I get why they would jump at this incredible resource for their students.”

Among area schools, Temple also has an arboretum, and landscaping and horticultural classes, at its Ambler campus.

What's in it for the Barnes? With Saint Joseph's moving in, the Barnes "gets to wipe out what could be a negative line in their budget, without losing" the site, Otten added.

Even when St. Joe's has moved programs onto the site and takes over day-to-day care, "the Barnes will retain overall responsibility" for the trees and plants, and will continue to "be involved" with horticulture classes, said Barnes spokeswoman Deirdre Maher. The pact reserves an office and five parking spaces on site for Barnes staff.

Terms allow St. Joe's to hang its own art in the nearly 20,000-square-foot gallery, which has been used for crate storage since the famous collections formed by its late founder, drugmaker Albert C. Barnes, were taken to their new home on Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 2012.

The deal has the blessing of the Montgomery County court that oversees wills and trusts, and the state Attorney General's office. St. Joseph's is preparing proposals for its use of the property for Lower Merion zoning officials.

Plans could include an event entrance from City Avenue, which would ease passage on Latchs Lane and other nearby streets where residents complained of traffic during the art-museum years.

The university plans to start a minor in horticultural studies. The Barnes' three-year horticultural certificate program will continue, though "registration and administration of the program may shift" to the university, Maher added. Around 40 students are enrolled at the Barnes Horticulture Education Certificate Program. The Barnes started horticultural classes on the site in 1940. Its art classes moved with the paintings to the Parkway museum.

Although more than half of St. Joe's 5,000 undergraduate students are enrolled in its Erivan K. Haub business school, studying accounting, insurance, food marketing, entrepreneurship and other dollar-based subjects, all students are required to take a core of liberal-arts courses, including at least one fine-arts course, university spokesman  Joseph Kender said.

These courses are a "foundation of the university," helping students grow as "engaged citizens, imaginative and inventive thinkers," he added. To expand those classes, "we couldn't think of a better partner than the Barnes," in walking distance of the Hawk campus.

The arboretum, which is opened several days a week from mid-spring into the fall, has drawn about 2,000 visitors a year in recent years, less than 1 percent of the visitors recorded at its Parkway art museum, according to Barnes federal tax records. Saint Joseph's has agreed to keep the arboretum open to the public for those same days, at least.

St. Joe's has added the former Episcopal Academy and Cardinal's Residence properties to the campus in recent years thanks to gifts from insurance magnate James Maguire and other donors. Zoning officials are awaiting information from the school on its proposed use, and will review what approvals St. Joe's might need before it can move in, said township zoning officer Michael Wylie.

Nonprofit-watchers note there's been a wave of affiliations and mergers among longtime cultural and educational institutions lately, including the 2016 union of Philadelphia University (formerly Textile) with Thomas Jefferson University.

Nonprofits seek collaborators and "co-location" so they can "further their missions, reduce expenses, or benefit from leadership and other expertise," with benefits ranging from space-sharing to joint programming, said Laura Solomon, whose Philadelphia law firm represents donors and philanthropists. The best deals give "clear benefits, to each party."

(Note: The SJU-Barnes deal runs for 30 years and is renewable in three 20-year installments, to 2107. An earlier version of this story wrongly said 2207. The story has also been updated to make clear that the Barnes courses will continue.)