Protests revived over school land

Judith Robinson, a North Philadelphia community activist, stands on the parcel the school district has given to the city for $1. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Staff Photographer)

A plan to transfer valuable Philadelphia School District property to a well-connected nonprofit group has fallen through over a federal funding denial, prompting further protests by residents around the Tanner Duckrey School.

In the fall, the School Reform Commission moved at breakneck speed to transfer a parcel worth at least $485,000 behind the elementary school on West Susquehanna Avenue in North Philadelphia for $1 to NewCourtland Elder Services Inc. for a proposed senior housing development.

SRC chairman Robert L. Archie abstained from voting because his law firm represents NewCourtland. He previously served as a member of the nonprofit's board.

Archie has declined several requests for comment; district spokesmen said Archie's recusal was sufficient to protect him from even the appearance of a conflict.

But Judith Robinson, a North Philadelphia community activist, said the SRC needed to rethink the matter with greater input from the community now that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has declined to fund the project. Because of HUD's decision, the district retains ownership of the property, city officials said.

"We will get them to claw it back and then truly have some community planning," Robinson said Friday.

The 67,000-square-foot parcel stretches from North 15th to North 16th Streets in a prime North Philadelphia corridor, a block from Temple University's main campus.

Three heavily used basketball courts make the parcel a community focal point. Before the senior housing development was proposed, Duckrey school administrators worked for more than a year with the Junior League of Philadelphia to develop an organic community garden and playground on part of the property.

The deal to give away land behind the school has been generating controversy for weeks.

Despite tight finances, the SRC voted in October to transfer the land, through the city, to NewCourtland for $1.

Robinson and other community representatives have noted that the land is diagonally across 15th Street from a 53-unit senior housing development.

Robinson has criticized the commission for not only failing to notify the neighborhood but also for giving away valuable land. Robinson, who sells real estate, has pointed out that the commission's policy calls for "getting the highest and best value" for land sold.

"Everybody should have been notified prior to," said Robinson, who learned about the deal at a city Planning Commission meeting in November. "I guarantee you, developers would have come to you for other opportunities for you to get the best and highest amount for the land."

But City Controller Alan Butkovitz said it was not unusual for a government entity to transfer land for a nominal fee for a public purpose. "We have not seen a conflict of interest or anything that violates state law," he said.

Officials at NewCourtland said the spot was ideal for their proposed $14.5 million project with 73 units for low-income seniors.

"It's a win-win for the entire community," said Max Kent, senior project manager of NewCourtland, which provides housing and services for seniors. Despite HUD's funding decision two weeks ago, the nonprofit plans to reapply, he said.

The district's real estate policy generally calls for notifying the public when it plans to dispose of unneeded property and soliciting bids.

That's what happened in several recent cases, in which the commission sold vacant schools to nonprofits, including charter schools.

In 2007, the commission sold the former Durham School at 16th and Lombard to Independence Charter School for $6 million. Later that year, the SRC sold the former John Wanamaker Middle School at 1111 Cecil B. Moore Ave. to a community-development arm of Bright Hope Baptist Church for $10.7 million.

District officials were jubilant when they received 10 offers for Wanamaker and when they learned that New Hope's bid was above market value.

"We are not in general in the business of giving away property, and certainly not to a for-profit entity," said Michael J. Masch, the district's chief business officer.

But state law and a property policy the commission approved in June allow it to give land to the city for community and economic-development projects, Masch said.

The land behind the Duckrey school, he said, is an example of such a project.

Fast-track consideration of the proposal began on Sept. 29, when Clay Armbrister, Mayor Nutter's chief of staff and husband of SRC member Denise McGregor Armbrister, sent a letter to Superintendent Arlene Ackerman asking the district to convey the land to the city so it could be used for a senior citizens housing project.

Doug Oliver, a spokesman for the Nutter administration, said the city agreed to play "the middleman" because state law prevented the district from transferring the property directly to NewCourtland for $1.

Two days later, the district's real estate committee considered the request as "future surplus" property.

Less than three weeks later, the five-member SRC voted to declare the property surplus and authorized the transfer. Armbrister's wife, McGregor Armbrister, and two other commission members voted for the measure. Archie said at the time that he abstained because his law firm, Duane Morris LLP, represents NewCourtland.

The resolution requires the developer to upgrade another nearby playground to make up for the loss of the basketball courts.

Archie did not publicly disclose that he was a former, longtime member of NewCourtland's board until Feb. 17, when Robinson complained about the deal. He left the board in December 2006.

After the commission's vote, the district received written reports from two real estate appraisers saying the land behind Duckrey was worth $485,000 and $525,000.

Masch said the commission had received the verbal appraisals before the vote.

But the commission voted to give away the land without alerting the community.

David E. Baugh, Duckrey's principal in October, said he was stunned to learn from an Inquirer reporter last month that the district had decided to give away the property.

"Nobody talked to us at the school level about that at all," said Baugh, who left in mid-November to become assistant superintendent of the Bensalem Township School District.

He thought Duckrey was proceeding with the Junior League to create a playground and a community garden with raised beds next to the basketball courts.

Samantha Soldan, Junior League president, learned about the deal in an e-mail from a friend who spotted an item on the City Planning Commission agenda for Nov. 17.

"We had already invested our volunteer resources and some money in the plans," she said.

Soldan called it a setback, but said a committee was working on a new plan with the interim principal to create a garden and play area closer to Duckrey.

Eight days after the SRC voted, City Councilman Darrell L. Clarke introduced an ordinance accepting the land from the district and conveying it for senior housing. Clarke is a well-known advocate of affordable housing, and the property is in his district.

At public hearings, he and other city officials said they needed to move swiftly because NewCourtland was seeking HUD funding.

City Council passed the ordinance Dec. 17, and Nutter signed it Jan. 13.


Contact staff writer Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or