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A first look at Germantown High School’s redevelopment, including housing, charter school, coworking space

At a community meeting Monday, the team behind the redevelopment of two former Germantown public schools unveiled a sprawling proposal. Many residents were concerned about the project not having enough affordable housing.

The team behind the proposal to redevelop Germantown High and Fulton Elementary Schools envision a public cafe with ample seating.
The team behind the proposal to redevelop Germantown High and Fulton Elementary Schools envision a public cafe with ample seating.Read moreWoodcock Design and Raymond F. Rola, Architect

Standing in the aisle of the Janes Memorial United Methodist Church in East Germantown, Andre Carroll stepped up to the microphone, cleared his throat, and addressed the team of developers, architects, and attorneys before him.

“It says you guys are going to do 10 percent [affordable] housing,” Carroll said, as he clutched a copy of the new master development plan for Germantown High and Fulton Elementary Schools. “As someone who has lived in Philadelphia as a lifelong resident, that’s concerning with a 26 percent poverty rate."

“I want to ask you: Would you consider upping that 10 percent?” Carroll, a Germantown High alumnus, implored. “Because 24 units out of 236 units is not enough.”

Carroll’s remarks, received with fierce applause from a crowd of nearly 100 neighbors, were one of several dozen questions asked Monday night in the second meeting between Germantown residents and the developers of the vacant neighborhood schools. It was billed as a first look at the project’s new master plan.

The Germantown High and Fulton Elementary campuses, separated only by East Haines Street in Northwest Philadelphia, were purchased in 2017 by a local team headed by Jack Azran and Eli Alon, both of whom have largely stayed out of the spotlight amid their various development projects across the city in recent years. In Germantown, that left residents knowing little about the developers or their plans, leading to rumors and frustration as they struggled to get answers about the future of the school properties.

On Monday, however, Azran and Alon, alongside two architects and an attorney, shared renderings and a $50 million proposal for the sprawling campuses, which have sat vacant and blighted since the Philadelphia School District closed them in 2013. The plan is a private and public mixed-use development, including 236 housing units, a charter school, cafe, coworking space, and community facilities.

“It’s an incredible experience to walk through this building,” said Raymond Rola, a Center City-based architect for the project, as he presented the team’s proposal. “What you feel when you walk through [Germantown High] is that there is a great variety of the types of spaces."

“The buildings are strong; they are sound,” he said.

The plans include no demolition or any expansion of current parking, which will provide 159 parking spaces for the 236 rental units. Plans include one- and two-bedroom units, averaging 936 square feet. Pressed for specific rent prices for the market-rate units, the development team said numbers were still being worked out.

For nearly a century, Germantown High, which stretches nearly a block, was the neighborhood’s local school, graduating thousands of students annually when its capacity was filled to 3,164. Fulton Elementary, at its peak, had 482 students. Yet when the district opted to close the buildings, along with 21 others, enrollment at both schools had plummeted. Facing a $1.35 billion budget deficit, the now-defunct School Reform Commission voted to sell the schools, despite resistance from residents.

Settled originally by German Quakers and Mennonites in the 1600s, Germantown has long been a vibrant community with a rich history, despite its struggle with crime and a poverty rate of more than 30 percent. The neighborhood recently has seen new investment, including a promised $12 million by Philadelphia developer Ken Weinstein, who plans to transform the area around the nearby Wayne Junction station. And the Philadelphia-based Stamm Development Group has two multifamily apartment projects in the works nearby.

At Monday’s meeting, residents questioned whether the proposed apartments would be unaffordable — especially in Germantown’s 19144 zip code, where the annual median household income is roughly $29,000. After a resident mentioned a price of $2,000 a month, Darwin Beauvais, a Dilworth Paxson attorney representing the developers, said the team doesn’t “anticipate such high rents.” When another attendee pressed the team again to increase the number of affordable units, Beauvais said the group “can make a commitment to increase it, but by how much” is unknown.

Throughout the evening, residents expressed other concerns, including plans to replace a portion of Germantown High with a charter school. “We got the idea of the charter school through the community,” Azran said in an interview Tuesday, adding that his team “understands their concerns.”

And they urged the developers to commit to local hiring. Azran said Tuesday that “our goal is to have a local workforce,” including in the 20 permanent jobs they create, plus in temporary construction jobs.

Multiple residents also asked that the character of Germantown High be reflected in the new development, including preserving the murals inside the halls. “We want as much of the characteristic of Germantown High to be visible to folks,” said Janice Woodcock, an architect working on the project.

Portions of the proposed development did garner praise, including plans for a community gym that will have basketball hoops and open space, which Rola, the architect, suggested could be used as a farmer’s market. The master plan also includes a community garden, green space, and solar roofs.

During the two-hour meeting, Azran and Alon hardly spoke, with Azran only saying publicly that he is “1,000 percent” committed to the project. Last month, Azran said in an interview that “we kind of made a mistake” by keeping the community in the dark, even as rumors swirled this spring that Germantown High could become a shopping center. On Tuesday, he said that he believes they are “heading in the right direction with the community."

According to city records, Azran still owes nearly $32,000 in back taxes — a far smaller amount than the nearly $670,000 that he had owed for the combined properties. According to city spokesperson Mike Dunn, the assessed values for the properties that make up the two campuses were recently adjusted, causing his tax bill to decrease. The properties had been tax-exempt for years when they were owned by the School District.

The city’s Office of Property Assessment “adjusted the values when recent third party appraisals were completed for the properties,” Dunn said in an email. “OPA determined this appraisal was accurately reflecting the current value.”

Germantown High and its surrounding parcels on the block are now valued at $100,000. The parcels including and surrounding Fulton Elementary are valued at $500,000.

Dunn said this week that the developers did attempt to settle the owed taxes “but [were] advised to wait until he receives revised new bills, which should arrive soon.”

In the coming weeks, Germantown residents are planning to meet to align their requests for a community benefits agreement, which Beauvais said the development team is committed to signing after negotiations. The team hopes to begin construction in early 2020, with a planned completion within two years.

“I believe in Germantown, and I like the area,” Azran said. “We just want to work with the community and make this work for everybody.”