The former Germantown High School appears to have finally begun a slow transformation.
The former Germantown High School – the king of all vacant real estate parcels in Northwest Philadelphia – appears to have finally begun a slow transformation.
It’s clear that work has begun at the campus, which takes up most of a city block, as construction crews and equipment began showing up this summer. What’s less clear is exactly what developer Jack Azran and his firm, which obtained the property in 2017 for just $100,000, plan to do with it all.
Construction appears to be underway at what used to be the Industrial Arts building, which is located at the rear of the building along Haines Street facing the now-shuttered Fulton Elementary School building. City records show that electrical and fire suppression permits were pulled this year for the four-story building, following a round of similar permits last fall. Officially encompassing two parcels from 61 to 73 Haines Street, zoning permits issued in 2020 and 2021 call for 57 dwelling units, according to Shemeka Moore, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections.
There is additional activity down the block, near the intersection of Haines and Germantown Avenue. On this southeast corner of the campus sits the five-story, 1960 “addition building,” whose mid-century modern design stands out from the classic stylings of the original building, which was constructed in 1914. City records show that electrical, mechanical, and plumbing permits were issued for this section late last year, and Moore said a 2021 commercial building permit calling for the construction of 44 units remains unchanged.
But mystery surrounds what’s in store for the totality of the parcel, the bulk of which is occupied by the high school proper. Early in the redevelopment process, Azran and other members of the development team said they planned to develop 236 one- or two-bedroom units, along with 159 parking spaces, a charter school, a cafe, and a co-working space. That remained the stated plan even after zoning permits issued in 2020 allowed for a maximum of 277 units.
Azran has mostly gone quiet: requests for an update from a reporter went unanswered, and Emaleigh Doley, executive director of Germantown United Community Development Corp., said the development firm 5901 Germantown Avenue Investment Partners has “not been particularly communicative,” since obtaining the ability to convert the parcel from a school to mixed-use development by-right. That means it does not legally need to seek approval or otherwise interact with RCOs or the community.
Two years later, whether the plan is still for 236 units with the previously stated mixed uses is unknown. When Azran last spoke to The Local in summer 2022, while debris was being hauled out of the building, he said he hadn’t finalized plans for the project.
“We’re not sure exactly what we’re dealing with,” he told the Local. “We’re just getting the building cleaned up at this point.”
Complicating matters even further is L&I’s Moore confirming to The Local that the buildings involved are technically on separate parcels.
Based on a review of records, Moore said it appears that the 44 units in the “Addition Building” appear to be the first phase of a maximum of 277 units for the former high school, despite being on separate parcels. But the Industrial Arts building is another separate parcel entirely, whose 57 units are separate. That would add up to an actual maximum of 334 units.
In addition, The Local identified a fourth parcel with a listed address of 5901-13 Germantown Avenue, which is the grassy lawn along Germantown Avenue at the corner of Haines. It’s owned by the same development firm. Despite a 2019 zoning record showing some interest in looping the property in with the rest of the redevelopment, Moore said it is not shown on the developer’s “key plan” and there are no recent applications or permits for the parcel.
“So it appears it is not part of the overall project,” Moore said.
Doley said the uncertainty surrounding exactly what’s in store for the former Germantown High School is indicative of a wider problem.
After the revelation of an initial proposal to demolish the building, Doley said her organization worked to support the high school’s nomination to the city’s historic register. Nominated in April 2019 and accepted the following September, the addition offered protection from the demolition of the building’s exterior.
But nearly simultaneously, City Council proposed in June 2019 a new bill to encourage the re-use of historic properties, with an incentive to developers that they could in many cases redevelop such properties by right. By November, Mayor Jim Kenney had signed it.
While many community groups and preservationists celebrated the bill as likely to help protect the city’s historic buildings, Doley said she’s grown concerned that a redevelopment project as significant to a community as the one at Germantown High School does not require public involvement and communication – under any circumstances.
“In one sense [the legal change] is what we want to see and is positive,” Doley said. “But I do think there is a problem with a zoning system where some level of community engagement is not required for a development that is so large… What’s bad about the whole process is that it’s all a guessing game unless a responsible, community-minded property owner comes forward to say what their intentions are.”