When the Philadelphia School District closed Germantown High School in 2013 just shy of its 100th anniversary and announced plans to sell it, some residents felt blindslided and confused. Others were hopeful.
How could their community continue without a central education facility?
Who would take on the responsibility of the building? What might replace the school?
Could the building be redeveloped to offer affordable housing, needed in the neighborhood? Vocational training? A resource center?
Six years later, all those questions remain unanswered.
And now, after months of neglect and thousands of dollars of unpaid taxes, the historic pillared building at 40 E. High St., as well as an elementary school sold that year, is going up for sale again.
“After the schools were closed, the city had a responsibility to ensure efficient disposal and redevelopment of these properties,” said Emaleigh Doley, an organizer for the Germantown United Community Development Corp. "How is it possible that today, Germantown High School is up for sheriff sale, and both the high school and Fulton Elementary School sit vacant?”
In fall 2012, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission voted to close 23 schools to save money. Months later, buildings that once welcomed thousands of students were emptied, shuttered, and sold.
Some were revitalized as charter schools. Roberts Vaux High School became Vaux Big Picture; Stephen A. Douglas became Maritime Academy. Some were redeveloped into neighborhood mixed-use spaces like University City, or community and commercial centers like Edward Bok Technical.
Others, like Germantown, weren’t so fortunate.
In September 2013, the Maryland-based Concordia Group began negotiations to purchase Germantown High, as well as nearby Fulton and three other shuttered school buildings: Charles Carroll High School in Port Richmond, and South Philly elementary schools Walter G. Smith and Abigail Vare.
The schools were packaged for quick sale, but the purchase agreement shows that they sold for widely varying amounts: Vare and Carroll for a little less than half their assessed value; Smith for nearly twice its market assessment; and Fulton for one-tenth. Germantown was the lowest-priced of all five schools at $100,000 — a far cry from the value of $11 million listed by the city’s Office of Property Assessment.
Then, another twist. Before the sale could be completed, a group of Point Breeze community members filed a lawsuit in Commonwealth Court opposing the closure of Smith and saying the schools were being sold below value. The deal came to a halt.
In 2017, after an appeal from the School District, the court approved the sale of the five schools. But the Concordia Group no longer seemed so sure. It flipped Smith to Philadelphia developer Ori Feibush, who was building in Point Breeze. Carroll is in development under Philadelphia-based developer High Top, while Vare is still listed as an active project under Concordia.
The two Germantown schools are not listed on Concordia’s site — or seemingly anywhere else, except with the sheriff.
According to Devin Tuohey, a principal at Concordia, the company sold the limited liability company that made the purchase about two years ago, the year the sale went through. That transferred ownership of both Germantown properties to a local buyer named Jack Azran, who’s been associated with at least 11 companies over the last 20 years.
Julie Stapleton Carroll, president of Germantown United CDC, said she had reached out to him multiple times over the last few years, asking about his plans for the property. No response.
Five telephone numbers listed under various associations with Azran were either suspended, out of service, or unresponsive. Multiple requests from The Inquirer via email brought no response.
The Department of Licenses and Inspections has tracked 15 violations for vacancy, weeds, and trash at the Germantown High address. And property taxes haven’t been paid since the 2017 purchase. The high school is listed as on four lots, according to city records; combined, that’s $595,306.93 in overdue taxes. Fulton, just across the street, is on two lots and has racked up just under $250,000 in back taxes.
“It definitely affected the community,” said State Rep. Stephen Kinsey, a Democrat who represents the neighborhood and graduated from Germantown High. “Two or three businesses closed as a direct result of the lack of traffic. There was more illegal activity around the school, more police on the driveway.… To have a vacant building of that magnitude for six years, that changes the whole neighborhood.”
Carroll said she sees the property struggle and tax delinquency as a symptom of people in power continuing to ignore residents. Their needs, she said, have remained consistent: "education for our kids, vocational training opportunities, artist resources, open space, affordable housing.”
Doley, who grew up in Germantown, shares Carroll’s frustration. When the school closure was announced, she said, a deputy mayor said all development proposals would be reviewed and analyzed carefully. She doesn’t see that promised transparency now.
“What the hell is actually happening here,” she wrote in an email, "and why has it been so difficult to get clear answers?”
Will the real developer please stand up?
In March, Philadelphia-based real estate broker MSC Retail released a brochure that disclosed plans to replace the Germantown High school building with two large stores and 68 parking spots. Residents were shocked and outraged. Germantown United CDC and activist interfaith group POWER called an emergency community meeting.
City Councilwoman Cindy Bass, who represents the neighborhood, said at the meeting that she planned to arrange a dialogue between the community and the company planning to develop Germantown High School, High Top. But a spokesperson for High Top says it’s not currently involved with the project. Meanwhile, MSC Retail has removed the brochure from its website. A spokesperson for MSC declined to comment on the property but said the company had no current plans for redevelopment.
Layla Jones, a spokesperson for Bass, said the councilwoman had no insight into the then-developers’ work, nor why they chose to discontinue involvement with the project. Bass initially advocated to keep Germantown High open, Jones said — now, “the councilwoman wants whatever the community wants for the property."
Attorney Darwin Beauvais of Dilworth Paxson, who was cited as the former developer’s attorney by both the East Falls Local and the Chestnut Hill Local, declined to comment on his involvement with High Top, the Germantown High property, or any other redevelopment projects in the area. He would say only that the tax sale process was “more complicated than it might seem."
If you’re finding the avalanche of names and developers confusing, you’re not alone; tracking responsibility for the school has become increasingly difficult. Carroll said she’s bothered by both the lack of communication and the owner’s apparent disregard for community wishes.
“It just signals to me that there’s something else going on,” she said.
‘Back at ground zero’
But time and taxes wait for no man — or developer. This spring, unpaid balances have caught up to the property. On May 15, the high school is scheduled for tax sale.
According to the Sheriff’s Office, if a property owner fails to pay utility bills, school taxes, or city taxes, the property may be auctioned at a tax delinquency sale so the city can collect what it’s owed. The opening bid on Germantown High next month is listed as $1,500.
Plus, the high school now falls within a newly designated Opportunity Zone created as part of the 2017 federal tax bill. It gives investors tax breaks for backing real estate and investment projects in low-income communities.
Community members hope the designation sparks new opportunities. According to Carroll, Mosaic Development Partners, a real estate firm that has redeveloped property in previously marginalized neighborhoods, has expressed interest and is looking to collaborate with investors willing to fund their community-driven approach. And Ken Weinstein, founder of Jumpstart Germantown, plans to bid next month.
Weinstein said he sees the high school as a key to revitalizing Germantown. Six years ago, he worked with community stakeholders on visions for the building’s redevelopment; he’s optimistic about the possibility of working with them again.
“I don’t know the intentions of the current owner ... but there’s no room for speculation in Germantown,” he said. “We need investors and developers who are willing to put their money where their mouth is.”
Kinsey agreed. The lack of progress — “six years later and we’re back at ground zero” — can be frustrating, he said, but the restart also could bring new opportunities, investors, and residents into community decision-making.
“This time,” he says confidently, “change won’t take another six years.”