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Community brainstorms new uses for vacant schools

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The challenge, posed to community members at a charette last week, was to devise, design, and present new uses for two shuttered school buildings within 24 hours.

The Community Design Collaborative, a nonprofit that provides free design services; the Deputy Mayor’s Office; and the American Institute of Architects hosted the charette, a term used in design circles to describe a collaborative planning session involving representatives from different disciplines.

“It was a long process, finding the sites, finding the community partners, and folks willing to think of it as an option,” said Design Collaborative director Beth Miller of the event, which was held at the Center for Architecture, 1218 Arch St. “I think it’s a long road, but I think there were some great ideas shared and some really great conversations.”

The four design teams, each with more than a dozen participants, crafted proposals reimagining uses for two closed School District buildings: the old Frances Willard School in Kensington and M.H. Stanton School in North Philadelphia. The schools were selected for this event because they had not attracted buyers after they closed, said Danielle Floyd, the District’s deputy for strategic initiatives.

Each design team included architects, private and nonprofit developers, and community members. M.H Stanton and Willard had two design teams each, responsible for creating a temporary and permanent plan for reuse. Although ideas for both schools tended to overlap (outdoor space for food trucks, urban gardens and gatherings, affordable housing for intergenerational families, and indoor event space for sports and adult education), the Willard designs catered to that community’s specific need for youth programming after the school replaced the neighborhood’s recreation center.

Leza Watkins, a consultant and North Philadelphia resident who helped present the temporary design for Stanton, said education had to be central to that school’s reuse strategy.

“I’d like for you guys to remember that in the case of Stanton, there was a school taken away from the neighborhood,” said Watkins. “It’s not just about what development can go into here. It’s important to remember that education is missing in that neighborhood.”

A panel of representatives from City Council, the School District, city agencies and community development corporations reviewed each team’s submission. Although most of the panel saw value in the suggestions, some were unsure about their feasibility.

“You can’t expect to extract economic value from a building that’s worth zero, or less than zero, and find something that makes everyone happy and finance its use,” said Leo Addimando, a cofounder of the Alterra Property Group. “There are economically viable uses for these schools, but at some point in time, something has to give.”

Floyd said the ideas proposed at the charette would be used to help advertise and inform interested developers about the potential use for each building.

“It’s hard to commit [to ideas] not really knowing where we think we’ll end up in terms of the sales process,” said Floyd. “But that certainly doesn’t stop us from having conversations and understanding needs, and figuring out a way to communicate those needs to who’s getting the property.”

According to Miller, each design team had at least two residents from the respective neighborhoods. But Judith Robinson of the Strawberry Mansion Civic Association said her community living around Stanton was not adequately represented.

Robinson, a newly elected committee person in the 32nd Ward, said she and other residents of North Philadelphia weren’t aware of a community stakeholders meeting in September, which facilitated the preliminary designs for Stanton presented at the charette.

Community Ventures, a nonprofit developer of affordable housing and a neighborhood partner for the charette, hosted that meeting. Watkins said she was one of a handful of residents present and said she received an invitation from Philly Urban Creators, a sustainability-focused community organization that acted as a community liaison for the design collaborative.

Miller said she tried to make the charette as transparent as possible, with residents placed on each design team. The event was also announced on WHYY/NewsWorks and through the Philadelphia Planning Commission and Urban Creators.

“We can present this again to other people, but, you know, I’m not sure how you can get every resident engaged,” said Miller.

Alex Epstein, co-founder of Philadelphia Urban Creators, said the collaborative had good intentions, but many grassroots organizations have limited access to the Internet and online resources.

“That’s why the Urban Creators exist. We’re like Hooked on Phonics for community development,” said Epstein. “We’re out there translating, getting information from developers, designers, as much as we can, bringing that back to our neighborhood in a way where people can understand it and be active, and then bring that feedback back to the people with the resources making the decisions.”

Floyd, who called the event inspiring, advised residential communities to voice their opinions during the schools’ rezoning phase, because developers are mandated to meet with neighborhood residents during that time.

“Oftentimes, what potential buyers or what the market is saying is a desired use for the property and what the community is saying don’t always sync up,” said Floyd.

“Being able to take information from these types of sessions and bring that to a potential buyer, to at least understand or having the willingness to implement some of these proposals, is really helpful.”

Payne Schroeder is an intern at the Notebook.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed a quote to Stephen Kauffman of Community Ventures instead of Leo Addimando of the Alterra Property Group, and incorrectly stated the ward number Judith Robinson is a committee person in.

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