Ryan Briggs Ryan Briggs is a staff writer and connoisseur of City Hall intrigue, business dealings, neighborhood gossip and local lore. Ryan has studied, worked and resided in Philadelphia since 2004, covering politics and development issues for Hidden City, Next City and Metropolis, amongst other fine publications.
More than 12 months after the Philadelphia School District received a bid for West Philadelphia High School, the sale of the vacant 250,000-square-foot building has not been completed, according to New York-based development company Strong Place Partners. Strong’s managing director Andrew Bank says that since formally entering into a contract to buy the school four months ago, he has been exercising a “due diligence period” built into the agreement. He declined to disclose the length of that period.
However, the delay raises serious questions about the District’s current budget, which banks on cash from the sale of other District properties put on the market late last year. Given West Philly High’s still-pending sale, that revenue seems uncertain.
Explaining the unusually long agreement period, a source within the District said he assumed that before completing the $6 million sale, Bank was likely waiting to secure the necessary zoning variances to convert the building into a proposed 300-unit apartment complex with a ground-floor retail component.
However, Bank countered that there was “a panoply” of factors at play. Alluding to possible environmental issues and an application for historic tax credits, he added that a final design had not yet been agreed upon for zoning review.
“When our proposal was submitted, it was based on a preliminary evaluation of the building and now we’re ascertaining whether what we proposed ...will actually fit, so that the economics work,” said Bank. He added that precisely how retail would be integrated into the 1912 Gothic institutional building without compromising the historic exterior,which would disqualify any historic tax credit application, was still “up in the air.”
The District is banking on the sale of at least $61 million worth of school properties by July 2014 to cover part of its highly publicized budget gap, and bragged recently that it had gotten 20 offers for seven schools vacated last year. But West Philly High was vacated in 2011 and put on the market shortly afterward, along with 11 other school properties. To date, only one of those buildings, a school annex in Queen Village, has actually sold.
That the first round of buildings the District tried to unload are mostly still sitting is likely a sign of more budget trouble to come.
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