PennDesign plan puts vacant Philly school buildings to use

At the end of the school year in June, Philadelphia will have nearly three dozen vacant school buildings. Some are small- or medium-sized structures, while others are gargantuan, like Germantown High School, which is four stories high and more than 350,000 square feet.

PennPraxis, the applied research arm of PennDesign, has developed a model for how the City of Philadelphia can reuse vacant school buildings for purposes such as housing for senior citizens or recreational space.

After a semester-long research project in the Master of City Planning program, students in the “Philadelphia School Reuse Studio” course suggested a comprehensive public process for selling or adapting the closing schools.

The “New Life for Old Schools” report sets a timeline to find buyers or tenants, or for the neighboring community to reuse the buildings.

Students proposed affordable apartments for senior citizens, a medical clinic, a jobs training center, and recreational space for the Fairhill School in North Philadelphia.

“We were really able to think outside the box,” says Liza Wallis, who recently received her Master of City Planning degree. “It was very much us being able to explore and to be creative, and stretching the limits of what people would think of when you think of school buildings.”

Other proposals include turning the Sheridan West Academy building in Port Richmond into a local food hub with shared commercial kitchens and café space, and North Philadelphia’s Vaux High School and Reynolds Elementary into affordable housing and retail space.

Harris Steinberg, an adjunct assistant professor in PennDesign and founding executive director of PennPraxis, says he hopes the report is helpful to Philadelphia and other cities in planning for the future. The City of Chicago recently announced that it is closing 49 public schools.

“Nobody’s really doing it well,” he says. “We picked up some important information from Kansas City, and there are a couple of things we learned from Washington, D.C., but for the most part, it’s such a new issue, everyone is looking at each other.”

Since Philadelphia already has a stated policy on reusing school buildings, Steinberg says the city could become a national leader, if it creates a more “nuanced and fleshed-out, whole city approach.”

The students do have the ear of some city officials. Philadelphia Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger and School District of Philadelphia representatives attended the students’ report presentation in early May.

“It would be great if Penn Praxis and the students could stay involved because the city is going to need a huge amount of help and resources to pull this off,” Steinberg says.

 The students’ report is available at the “New Life for Old Schools” website.