A hip living space designed for teachers

Alicia Montague-Keels, who teaches at a Philadelphia charter school, lives in the Oxford Mills apartments. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer)

Alicia Montague-Keels likes the coffee shop in her apartment complex, the outdoor lounge with twinkling lights and a fire pit, the exposed brick and high ceilings that come with living in a converted 19th-century dye works.

But that's not why she moved to Oxford Mills in South Kensington.

"I love it because people are fighting for the same things that I'm fighting for," said Montague-Keels, who teaches fourth grade at a Philadelphia charter school.

Oxford Mills is the first development of its kind in the city, billing itself as an "urban oasis for teachers and nonprofits." It features 114 apartments, most of which are rented to teachers at a discount, and just under 40,000 square feet of office space, most of which is leased by education-related companies.

The project originated when Philadelphia developers Greg Hill and Gabe Canuso joined with Baltimore-based Seawall Development, the outfit that in 2009 pioneered teacher housing complexes in that city. Hill and Canuso, who turned their attention from luxury projects to more socially conscious work, loved the idea of a space for educators, they said.

"We've heard so many stories about newer teachers, younger teachers that really struggle," Hill said. "Landing in tough schools without a lot of resources - it's a challenge. But to come home and have colleagues to communicate and share ideas with, they're more energized and supported."

The educator discount - available because the developers earned some federal tax credits by using a historic property in what's considered a distressed neighborhood - matters, too. (Market rate for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,300; teachers pay $1,000.)

"It was really hard to find something affordable in the city for me with my teacher's salary," said Shannon Craige, the librarian at Norwood-Fontbonne Academy, a private school in Chestnut Hill. She moved in shortly after the complex opened last summer, from a rented house in Northern Liberties.

Craige, 33, said she's happy at Oxford Mills, which she said is "well planned for bringing community together. You want to hang out here, and meet people here."

She might find herself hanging out in the indoor lounge, where copiers are popular for making student handouts, or in one of the outdoor spaces. Oxford Mills also hosts happy hours, community cleanups, and back-to-school breakfasts.

Montague-Keels graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison last year and joined Teach for America, securing a spot in a classroom at Young Scholars Kenderton Charter School in North Philadelphia. She knew little about the city, but was interested in the idea of a complex with ties to her charter network and Teach for America, both of which have offices at Oxford Mills.

Plus, the Washington, D.C., native said, South Kensington is up-and-coming. Being sandwiched between two El stops is handy, too.

"I drive to work, but I walk to most places in the neighborhood - friends' houses, church," said Montague-Keels, 23. "It's a fun neighborhood, and it's nice when friends come to visit the complex - they always say, 'Wow, what a great space.' "

Hill and Canuso considered several neighborhoods and locations before settling on the complex, which opened in the 1870s as a mill, became a lamp factory, and eventually fell into disrepair. The two restored redbrick buildings are a mix of sleek, modern design and preserved or tweaked details, such as the pergola fashioned from reclaimed mill lumber.

And South Kensington has been a good landing spot, they say, a combination of gritty old-school Philadelphia and its gentrifying neighbors, Northern Liberties, and Fishtown. Rents in the neighborhood already are creeping up, and construction noise is a frequent backdrop these days.

The developers spent three years reaching out to nonprofits who fit the model - Teach for America, the charter network Young Scholars, an education incubator associated with the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education.

"We knew it was going to be a unique building and a unique concept, but we filled up quicker than anticipated," Canuso said. Both the residential and retail pieces are now completely full. Community organizations have used space for their events.

Peter McHugh, a Philadelphia School District teacher, chose Oxford Mills after living in University City, Germantown, and Mount Airy, saying he liked the idea of the complex.

"And I liked the appearance," said McHugh, 46, a teacher at Parkway West High School. "I like how they took an old factory and managed to maintain the floors, the beams."

McHugh is moving out because he would like more space than the 600 square feet his one-bedroom offers, but he enjoyed living there, he said.

"It's lively," he said.

Susan Teegen, executive director of the arts education nonprofit Artwell, scoured the city for a new location for the organization that had spent 13 years in University City.

The idea of an education community sold Teegen, who also wanted to design a brand-new space for the organization, which became an original tenant.

"We've been thrilled beyond our expectations, even," Teegen said. Artwell has forged new partnerships with fellow tenants; used the entire complex for festivals; displayed student work at the Griffin Cafe, the on-site coffee shop; and had Spike Lee come to film its work at the complex.

"It's a really great place to live and work for us," Teegen said. "It's an exciting venue for our mission in action."


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