by Diane Fiske
Streetscape is a monthly column about architecture, planning and urban design.
Germantown High School, which opened in 1914 and closed in 2013, went through many changes in fortune in about 100 years. Now the aging school may be on track for a new life.
In its lifespan, GHS went from serving 2,218 students when it was a prestigious neighborhood school until it closed with about 650 students enrolled.
Until about the 1970s, many residents of neighboring Northwest Philadelphia communities like Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy were students at GHS.
In its final year, the elegant stone and brick colonial building on a huge site, which it shared with Robert Fulton Elementary School at Germantown and East Haines Street, reported a graduation rate below 50%.
The Germantown High and Robert Fulton campuses were separated by East Haines Street in Northwest Philadelphia, and were purchased in 2017 by developers Jack Azran and Eli Alon.
Azran and Alon hired architects Janice Woodcock and Rola Raymond, with whom they had worked before, to develop plans for the project of designing a new use for the high school buildings and grounds.
Both architects are enthusiastic about the project, which will be presented to the Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment for a variance this fall. The variance would change the zoning designation from residential to accommodate the proposed mixed uses the team proposes.
“The buildings are strong; they are sound,” Raymond said.
Last month, Azran and Alon, alongside the two architects and an attorney, showed the renderings of the $50 million proposal to community members. The community approval is crucial to gaining approval of any plan.
The proposed plan is a mixed-use development, including 236 housing units, a charter school, a cafe, co-working space and a community facility.
According to the proposal, housing units would be located on the upper floors of the old high school and in the old gymnasium.
Some of the residents at the meeting questioned the fact that only 24 of the proposed residential units would be affordable according to the informal presentation. This is still one of the many items being discussed.
Not being discussed is preserving the large campus, which the architects say is a given.
“The idea was to reuse all of the land and not demolish anything,” Woodcock said. “The school has always been the center of the community and the residents feel it should be again.”
In addition to housing, Woodcock and Rola’s plans include a number of proposals for community space.
Among the proposals, there would be an “art incubator” on the main floor of the high school where people could pursue crafts and other vocations. There would be three commercial kitchens available to residents that could be used to support businesses and events. There’s even an auditorium.
“The 1,200-seat auditorium could be used for a variety of community events and presentations,” Woodcock said.
She added that a coffee shop would be installed in the modern front section of the high school in what is called “the annex,” where a charter school would also be located in another section.
Woodcock added, “People from the community will be hired as property managers and in every other capacity.”
She emphasized that no public money is involved, and developers are paying “for the whole thing.”
“This project, which uses no public money, has the potential of knitting together different parts of the community, which is now split in half with no school in the middle,” she said.
Negotiations are continuing between community members and the developers for the details of the agreement such as housing costs and the number of affordable units.
When these negotiations are completed, the proposals will be submitted to the ZBA, Zola said, and a hearing date will be set.