Reactivating Philadelphia's Vacant Schools

As urban school districts across the country close schools, communities are facing a difficult reality.  How can school buildings, longstanding neighborhood icons, be reactivated both temporarily and for the long term? What’s next for these vacant public school buildings and sites?

On Friday, KSS Architects’ Beth Emig and Sara Nordstrom participated in a day-long design charrette entitled “Reactivating Vacant Schools.” The event was hosted by the Community Design Collaborative as part of AIA Philadelphia’s Design on the Delaware conference.

Morning presentations offered charrette participants insight into the growing issue of vacant public school buildings. Closed public schools are most commonly redeveloped as charter schools. In many cases, however, falling enrollment is the main cause of closure. What can be done with these buildings when there are not enough school-age children within the catchment area to make a new school? School buildings are particularly challenging to redevelop, due to three main factors: their size (usually over 50,000 sf); their age (an average of 60); and their location (often in struggling neighborhoods).

Two closed schools were chosen as prototypes, each with different challenges: the Old France Willard School in the Kensington section of Philadelphia and the M. Hall Stanton School in North Philadelphia. Participants were divided into four teams of about twelve people each; two teams per school. Between those teams one team was to propose a temporary use scenario to occur from the time the school closed to when the property is purchased.  The other team was to create a proposal for permanent development. All teams were to carefully consider issues such as physical construction, financing, community priorities, and leadership.

Our team, the red team, explored the temporary use possibilities of the 4-story, 80,000sf M. Hall Stanton School. Each team consisted of architects, designers, landscape architects, students from the Charter High School for Architecture and Design, and community leaders. Resource advisors including planners, developers, cost estimators, preservationists, and city department representatives floated between all teams.

Team Red was driven by a collective desire to reactivate the building as a center for community services with minimal effort in the estimated 6-8 year interim before the building is redeveloped. We quickly established two guiding principles for our proposal. The first was rejection of the term “temporary use” in favor of “transitional use.” In the case of a neighborhood struggling against drug use, violent crime, and residential vacancy, transient or seasonal uses would be less effective in preventing the large site from becoming a magnet for negative activity. Adopting the concept of transitional use broadened the potential use palette to include services that support the community that may be semi-permanent, or could be incorporated into permanent development in the future. To define these critical uses, we turned to the community leaders in our group, including non-profit staff members and entrepreneurs. 

Consistent with re-defining our assignment according to what was best for the community, Team Red’s second guiding principle was to widen our scope beyond the exterior lot of the building. The ground floor of Stanton includes a gymnasium, auditorium, offices and classrooms, all in decent shape and accessible. It would be a missed opportunity to not bring the gymnasium and the auditorium back online as quickly as possible as community resources for recreational and cultural programs. From there, we imagined an entire education and wellness wing in the existing classrooms on the ground floor, run as satellite programming by local non-profits. We proposed no demolition or new construction, minimizing interventions to basic cleanup and a fresh coat of paint. Nonprofits occupying the space would bring all the equipment necessary to activate it: Philadelphia Urban Creators would establish a culinary training classroom to include exterior raised bed planters; Tree House Books would run a small library;  a youth crisis center in bad need of additional counselling space would occupy another classroom. Besides the garden area, the large exterior lot would be flexible enough to host a rotating schedule of vendors, mobile clinics, and recreational activities. An indoor/outdoor cafe, housed in the old administrative offices, would operate year-round and act as an anchor for the reactivated site. Our proposal was bold in its scope and foregrounded community priorities.

 At the end of the day, each team presented their proposal and responses were offered by a panel of stakeholders including developers, school district representatives, community members and city officials. Overall, panelists were impressed by the idea of taking back place and blending temporary uses into permanent ones. Many thought health and health education could act as a catalyst for change in the community. Some panelists described the economic and management challenges of implementation aspects of the proposals.  The conversation generated a direct dialogue between school district representatives and city officials and community members who were eager to get involved in the future of these sites. The process has only begun as the Community Design Collaborative and dedicated volunteers will advance charrette ideas towards action in partnership with city officials and community members.  All eyes are on urban districts struggling with the issue of shuttered schools. Can Philadelphia create innovative, sustainable models for redevelopment? We will see what our city comes up with next.