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School sites sell after legal tussle, with Feibush to develop Smith Elementary building

Developer Ori Feibush and partner Robert Roskamp acquired the former Walther Smith school at 19th and Wharton Streets.

Doorway of the former Walter Smith School at 1300 S. 19th St. in Point Breeze.
Doorway of the former Walter Smith School at 1300 S. 19th St. in Point Breeze.Read moreDanielle Rivera

Developer Ori Feibush plans to renovate South Philadelphia's former Walter Smith School into apartments, now that a judge has cleared the Point Breeze property's sale by the School District of Philadelphia over a challenge by neighbors.

Feibush and partner Robert Roskamp acquired the Smith School building, at 19th and Wharton Streets, for a price in the "mid-four"-million-dollar range on Friday, Feibush said in an interview Tuesday.

That purchase price went to a Bethesda, Md.-based developer, the Concordia Group, which effectively sold off the property after acquiring it and four other schools from the district as a package for $6.8 million.

Will Collins, a principal with Concordia, did not immediately return a call asking about plans for the four classroom properties it retained.

Concordia previously obtained zoning permits to convert one of them – the Abigail Vare Elementary School property in South Philadelphia's Pennsport neighborhood – into dwelling units and to build townhouses on its schoolyard.

Smith, Vare and the three other schools – Germantown and Charles Carroll High Schools and Robert Fulton Elementary – were among 11 shuttered buildings that Philadelphia's School Reform Commission voted to sell in September 2014.

Some Point Breeze residents, who had hoped the Smith building would be acquired by a charter-school operator, mounted a court challenge to the sale of the properties as a package, arguing that the school district was violating its rules for open bids by not selling them individually.

Opponents of the sale – led by the Point Breeze Community Development Coalition, a neighborhood group – were initially successful, with Common Pleas Court Judge Nina Padilla-Wright halting the transaction in March 2016.

Last month, however, Padilla-Wright ruled that the transaction could go forward, after being instructed to take that step  by a Commonwealth Court judge who sided with the school district in an appeal.

Deborah Cianfrani, a lawyer for the neighborhood group, said she hoped Feibush would live up to a pact that Concordia made to its members to include an educational center, low-income housing, and other features for the community in its plans.

The group dropped its challenge to the redevelopment plan as part of that deal, although others in the community continued to oppose the project.

Feibush said that he was unaware of any commitments made to community groups, but that he expected some community space to be part of the project.

"I'm certainly eager to work hand in hand with different stakeholders," he said.

The Smith School property is only about a block away from the townhouse complex being developed by Feibush near 20th and Wharton Streets that was the target of an arson attack early this month.

Rental apartments are planned for the Smith building, with for-sale units to be built on the former schoolyard, for a total of up to about 120 dwellings, he said. Work could begin as soon as this fall.

Feibush and Roskamp, who is best known as the backer of the Roskamp Institute biomedical-research center in Sarasota, Fla., also are working together on the conversion of the Royal Theater property at 1520-36 South St. into an apartment and townhouse development.

Concordia, meanwhile, is part of the group working to build a 95-unit townhouse project at the former Mount Sinai Hospital site near Pennsport.