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Philadelphia's Condo Boom & Not Enough Schools

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Schools left behind in Center City boom
They are priced out of the market, delaying expansion as waiting lists grow.
Condos and dining are not enough.

By Inga Saffron
Inquirer Architecture Critic
16 April 2006
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Every week in Philadelphia seems to bring another condo proposal. By the end of the decade, booming Center City could be home to 10,000 new people. We know where those residents will live. We can guess where they will shop, dine and park their cars. But has anyone thought about where they might send their children to school? Not yet.

The same market frenzy that has sent Center City real estate prices through the stratosphere is also stressing the area's well-regarded charter and private schools, which supplement the public schools. With new residents pouring in, schools such as Independence Charter School and the Philadelphia School are seeing enrollment applications soar. They are desperate to expand into new space - if only they could afford it. Yet, despite the public service they provide, the public sector hasn't exactly rushed to their aid.

Just the opposite. Rather than give these two schools preference when public property in Center City has come up for sale, their government owners have behaved more like private landlords. Like everyone else, they are trying to cash in on the boom. Such short-term thinking might look good on the account books, but it threatens to compromise Center City's desirability. Unless Philadelphia provides schools, parks and recreation to go along with all the new housing, Center City is in danger of becoming a bland ghetto of the wealthy and childless.

Sometimes it seems as if public officials prefer things that way. Take the plight of the Independence Charter School at Seventh and Sansom Streets. Founded in 2001, the K-7 school has won plaudits for its challenging Spanish-language immersion program, its strong test scores, and its diverse student body. There are 200 children on the waiting list for this fall's kindergarten and no place to put them, principal Jurate Krokys told me.

So when the school district decided last year to sell its decommissioned Durham School, Krokys rushed to put in a bid. Purchasing the old school at 16th and Lombard Streets would have solved a lot of problems. Independence Charter could have increased enrollment from 580 to 720 students, created an outdoor play area, and made room for a gymnasium and cafeteria. Once again, the halls of the early 20th-century schoolhouse would have rung with the voices of children.

Not surprisingly, Independence was outbid by a condo developer, although the margin was barely $1 million. The school district is now drawing up a contract to sell the building to the developer for $6 million. The charter school will almost certainly have to leave Center City, Krokys said. At current prices, the nearest affordable neighborhood is now Northern Liberties.

It's not just Center City residents who will lose out when Independence moves. The charter draws children from every Philadelphia neighborhood and has become a rare meeting ground for people of all income levels. Many parents chose the school because they work downtown, and its Seventh Street location is convenient to SEPTA train lines and buses. Northern Liberties won't be nearly as convenient.

The School Reform Commission, which runs the school district, briefly discussed giving Independence Charter a special deal, said William Tomasco, who administers the district's charter schools. But the commission decided that it needs "every nickel and dime it can get." At the same time, Tomasco added, the commission was worried about the perception that Center City has "too many high-end schools." It's a strange concern given that more than half of Independence's students qualify for the free-lunch program.

But then, there are lots of misconceptions about how schools factor into Center City's future. Although developers have been claiming every scrap of available land for housing, planners have made no provisions for supporting amenities such as schools, parks or playgrounds. They operate on the assumption that Center City, like many of America's reviving downtowns, is destined to become the exclusive province of childless empty nesters, singles or DINK couples - double-income, no kids - who need only good restaurants, shops and cultural outposts to be happy. But Center City isn't like those other American downtowns. It has always been a vital, living place because one generation of children has followed another.

There is still hope for the Philadelphia School. The private, K-8 school has made a bid to buy a city-owned lot at 25th and South Streets, a quick block from its Lombard Street building. The site would give the school room to add classrooms, a playground and parking. Unfortunately, three housing developers are also vying for the half-acre property, now valued at $3 million.

Unlike the school district, however, the city doesn't see the sale purely in terms of money. Instead of auctioning the property, the city asked potential buyers to submit written proposals along with their bids to the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp.

That gave the Center City Residents Association time to evaluate all four proposals. It endorsed the school's proposal. It realized that Toll Bros. alone is planning to build 1,000 homes in the vicinity of the South Street corridor. Even if just 10 percent of the buyers have children, that's more than 100 children. They'll need to go to school some where.
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Center City is indeed going the way of the DINKs. I work in Fairmount, a neighborhood on the periphery of Center City which is rapidly filling up with the spillover from downtown - high-earning young people, who seldom have children - and turn the neighborhood into a vacuum of self-absorption, displays of wealth and classism. Although Center City has needed a revitalization for, frankly, decades we're moving from the extreme of empty storefronts and lowest common denominator retail all over to high-end, exclusive (Walnut Street is not an inviting place for anyone making less than $70,000 a year). So it comes as no surprise that developers are so anxious to cash in on this boom while the getting's good, the actual facets of everyday life - streetscape, parks, schools, groceries - get overlooked. There is nary a square inch of land in Center City that isn't spoken for and it's asking for top dollar - something a school can't give.
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