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Ideas for Reactivating Vacant Schools

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For decades, public schools have anchored Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. They are places where you meet other parents, make lifelong friends, and expect to send your children and grandchildren. So, when the School District of Philadelphia recently closed 30 public schools throughout the city, many felt the loss acutely.

How can vacant schools be reactivated and become part of their neighborhoods again? And what happens to vacant schools that do not find immediate buyers and reuses? On November 14, the Community Design Collaborative, the Office of the Deputy Mayor of Philadelphia, and AIA Philadelphia posed these questions to over 100 design professionals, developers, city agencies, and community members. 

At the end of the day,  Alan Greenberger, Philadelphia's Deputy Mayor of Economic Development and Director of Commerce, summed what the charrette had accomplished. "School closures were painful for SDP… but they were also painful for neighborhoods. Schools are part of roots for many residents who went to these schools and saw their families going there too. We accomplished three things today: a chance to accept, heal, get on, and move past… a chance to network with others with a stake in school reuse… and a chance to create and see ideas and develop aspiration. Every one of us heard something today that was a good idea.”

"Every one of us heard something today that was a good idea.”

Charrette participants formed four teams to collaborate on models for temporary and permanent reuse for vacant schools. Each team was asked to focus on either the temporary or long-term reuse of one of two schools. Kensington’s Old Frances Willard School. built in 1907, has a grand entrance, big windows, and handsome historic details inside. Lower North Philadelphia’s M. Hall Stanton School, built in 1952, has spare lines, a spacious ground floor gym and auditorium, and continuous bands of windows.

  • Kensington’s Old Frances Willard School
  • Lower North Philadelphia’s M. Hall Stanton School


Four Teams, Four Proposals

Each charrette team presented its reuse proposal to the public and a panel of experts (see list below) at the end of the day. Their sketches and concepts will be assembled into an illustrated report over the next few months. In the meantime, here is a sampling of ideas straight from the charrette. 

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WILL YARD | Willard Temporary Reuse Team 
“There’s a missing puzzle piece [in the neighborhood] in terms of community organizing,” noted team member Andrew Goodman, “Open space could be a catalyst.” The team outfitted half the schoolyard with temporary seating, fencing, and painted blacktop to define a safe play area and an urban farm. They conceived the other half as community “flex-space” for anything from movie screenings to a farmers’ market. Community-made murals tie the space together. The school’s exterior serves as a canvas for temporary art installations.

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Intergenerational Living  | Willard Permanent Reuse Team 
As a first move in redeveloping Willard as affordable rental housing, the team relocated the front entrance to the schoolyard.  The accessible new entry adds activity in the schoolyard, where paving has been removed to create a green outdoor play space, an urban farm, and a rain garden. Child care on the ground floor and the preservation of historic doors, windows, and paneling inside add warmth and vitality to the housing complex. Seating and trellises within the school’s lofty, 14-foot -wide corridors give renters, accustomed to row house living, their own “front porch.”

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Urban Innovation Center @Stanton | M. Hall Stanton Temporary Reuse Team 
Team member, resident, and entrepreneur Leza Watkins advised, “Think in terms of ‘transition’ not temporary.” She added that the neighborhood is a food desert, is troubled by youth violence, and 30% of the land in the immediate vicinity is vacant. The team thought in terms of remedies. They proposed a year-round urban farm, community flex space for meetings and classes, and a café that would become part of the school’s ultimate reuse. For now, the café and meeting space could occupy part of the building or be housed in shipping containers outside.

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Grands Stanton | M. Hall Stanton Permanent Reuse Team 
The Stanton team reopened the first-floor gym and auditorium spaces for community arts and sports programming. The upper floors become apartments for grandparents raising grandchildren. The front entrance moves to the schoolyard and is designed with a generous terrace to allow performances and community events to spill outside. Stanton is twice the size of Willard, so the team also proposed selective demolition at the ground level to create new visual and physical connections across the site—and make space for an urban farm and market. The building structure, stripped-down and exposed, could frame this new outdoor space.

Interim Use is Key

“I can’t stress enough the importance of interim uses,” said Noel Eisenstat, a board member of the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, “The sooner you can control an asset the better. Seize the opportunity before the tipping point where the property goes the other way. He added, “Interim uses can blend into the ultimate use.”

Danielle Floyd, Director of Capital Programs for the School District of Philadelphia, said, “I appreciate the concept of creating a focal point in the schoolyard that is low-maintenance and implementable.” She praised the proposed art installations and pop-up activities for being “attentive to reconnecting schools into the neighborhood infrastructure.”

In developing temporary uses and community flex space, Alan Greenberger, Deputy Mayor of Economic Development and Director of Commerce, advised, “Think place, not building.” He sees the potential for activities to reveal themselves and grow. “In communities, people are doing creative things. The space will draw them out.”

Leo Addimando, Co-founder and Managing Partner, Alterra Property Group
Rafael E. Alvarez Febo, Community Relations Liaison, Office of Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sanchez
Donna Bullock, Esq., Special Assistant to the Council President, Office of Councilman Darrell Clarke
Noel Eisenstat, Board, Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency
Danielle Floyd, Director of Capital Programs, School District of Philadelphia
Alan Greenberger, FAIA, Deputy Mayor of Economic Development and Director of Commerce
Stephen J. Kaufman, Senior Project Manager, Community Ventures
Deborah McColloch, Director, Office of Housing and Community Development
Nando Micale, AICP, PP, FAIA, Principal, Wallace Roberts & Todd
Andy Rachlin, Vice President & Market Leader, The Reinvestment Fund
Sandy Salzman, Executive Director, New Kensington CDC

Moderator Jeremy Thomas, Director of Real Estate Development, Philadelphia Department of Commerce

Office of the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development
Community Design Collaborative
AIA Philadelphia 

Community Ventures
New Kensington CDC 

National Endowment for the Arts
The Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia 

Klein and Hoffman, Inc.




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