Changing Skyline | Schools can tell tales with happy endings

The look of the 98-year-old Durham school will be changed, below, after a $12 million renovation. Plans had to be scaled back because of the expense of buying the building.

It should have been a perfect urban fairy tale. An aging neighborhood gets its groove back. Young couples move into the old houses, fix them up, and start families. The local schools announce plans to build more classrooms to accommodate the new generation of kids. But there's no guarantee of a happy ending when the neighborhood is in Center City and real estate prices are heading into the stratosphere.

In 2006, Independence Charter School and the Philadelphia School were both bursting at the seams and desperate to find room to expand within Center City. But between spiraling prices and school-averse neighbors, the two academies had all but given up hope. So it's a pleasant surprise to learn that both expansion projects won unexpected endorsements this fall from Philadelphia officials.

Their stories couldn't be more different. The Philadelphia School is an elite private institution at 25th and Lombard Streets. Independence Charter School, now operating out of an office building at Seventh and Chestnut Streets, is a low-frills place that offers public Spanish-immersion curriculum.

What linked the two, besides their strong reputations and high standards, was that they were both trying to buy surplus public property at a time when people in real estate - bureaucrats included - were trying to make a killing. The officials were so bedazzled by skyrocketing prices, they almost came to believe that maximizing revenue was the government's main goal.

Two years ago, Independence Charter set its sights on buying the decommissioned Durham school building at 16th and Lombard from the school district. Around the same time, the Philadelphia School won its bid for a city-owned storage yard at 25th and South. But before you could count the 200 names on Independence Charter's waiting list, school district chief Paul Vallas decided to cash in on the boom and sell Durham to a condo developer for $6 million.

Meanwhile, a small group of neighbors launched a campaign to prevent the Philadelphia School from buying the storage yard for $3.4 million to build a preschool. Judging from the rhetoric, you would have thought the sound of laughing kids was one of life's great nuisances. Neighbors argued that a townhouse development would be quieter - and better for their property values.

In healthy cities, which are always in flux, today's storage yard might indeed become tomorrow's tony new address. But if a city expects to stay healthy, it also needs to support a growing population with improved amenities like schools and parks. You don't want all condos, all the time.

Since both the old Durham school and the storage yard were in public hands in 2006, selling them at a nominal price was in the interest of the greater public good.

It's all too rare that the general good wins the day in Philadelphia. But the city and the school district ended up doing the right thing with these two cases after the Center City Residents Association and two neighborhood Democratic leaders, Terry Gillen and Marcia Wilkof, intervened on behalf of the schools. City Council formally approved the sale of the storage lot to the Philadelphia School last week, after Gillen testified it was in the city's best interest.

This year, the School Reform Commission agreed to sell the Durham building to Independence Charter for $6 million, the same price the developer had offered before opting to back out of the deal. Gillen, who is also a top policy adviser to Mayor-elect Michael Nutter, believes the price was excessive.

"Part of what government should do is use its land to direct certain policy outcomes," she argued. "We need these schools in the neighborhood."

Even though the sale price was steep, Independence Charter ultimately concluded that it couldn't find a suitable Center City building for a better price. But it will be a heavy burden to pay off the mortgage while undertaking a $12 million renovation project. The charter school broke ground last month and expects to have the 98-year-old building back in the education business by September.

Because Independence Charter paid so much for the property, the renovation won't be as comprehensive as was once hoped. The work, which is being overseen by David L. Schrader of the Schrader Group, will enable the school to freshen all the classrooms in the historic building, install modern ventilation and restrooms, and build a small addition that will house three more classrooms and office space.

Schrader said he also will be able to preserve much of the structure's original woodwork, including the still-perfect sliding pocket doors that separate the classrooms. The school will have to delay, however, plans to replace the awkward institutional windows and landscape the asphalt playground.

Still, it's remarkable just how much Independence Charter will be able to accomplish with a construction budget of $108 per square foot.

That's roughly half what the school district typically spends on new construction. It makes you wonder why Vallas and the School Reform Commission were so determined to tear down Philadelphia's stock of well-built historic school buildings to put up thick-skinned replacements. West Philadelphia High School, the great Gothic behemoth that dominates the western part of the city - and designed, like Durham, by Henry D. Richards - is being evaluated as the next target for destruction.

Even the Philadelphia School, which can raise money from a well-heeled network, is considering incorporating into its preschool two evocative structures at the former city storage yard, said David Colman, the architect who heads the building committee.

That old generation will suit the new generation just fine.

Changing Skyline |

Inga Saffron blogs about Philadelphia architecture at

Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or

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