Old West Philly High likely to become lofts aimed at grad students, faculty

November 10, 2012

West Philly High

Andrew Bank of Strong Place Partners presents his firm’s plan for the future of the old West Philly High School building during a community meeting Saturday.


The old West Philadelphia High School building will be converted into loft apartments aimed primarily at graduate students and junior faculty from nearby universities, the leading bidder told residents during a meeting Saturday.

The New York-based Strong Place Partners, whose purchase of the building will likely be approved next week, plans to build about 300 apartments in the building ranging from small studios to a few apartments as big as 1,600 square feet. The firm’s president, Andrew Bank, said the tentative design will attempt to retain much of the 100-year-old school’s existing infrastructure, including one of the school’s large theaters and its gym.

“Our intention is to preserve the history and in some way preserve the character of the high school,” said Bank, who grew up in suburban Philadelphia and whose grandmother attended West Philadelphia High School.

Bank was speaking to community members during a public meeting at the new West Philadelphia High School. Those in attendance included members of the board of the West Philadelphia High School Alumni Association.

“We would hope that the tenants would be residents of West Philadelphia,” said Alumni Association president Paula McKinney-Rainey.

But Bank said that most of the tenants, who he expects to be associated with universities, would likely be transient. None of the units will be for sale. He said no allowance would be made for subsidized housing or housing aimed at senior citizens. He did add, though, that he believes the rents would be “comparatively affordable” to other housing options in the city.

West Philly

The development plan calls for the preservation of as much of the building’s historic character as possible.

The ground floor of the building will house about 15,000 square feet of retail space and include businesses “geared toward enhancing the lifestyles of the building’s residents.”

Bank said the target demographic for the project included residents in their mid 20s to mid 50s associated with the universities. The project would be the largest private residential building aimed primarily at university-associated tenants west of 47th Street.

Bank said he expected rents to start at $800-$850 per month for a studio of about 400 square feet and that new residents will likely be able to move in by 2016.

“Renovation is much more difficult than new construction,” Bank said of the lengthy construction timeline, which includes zoning changes.

The development also calls for the scaling back of the wide sidewalks along Walnut and Locust streets and a “massive improvement of the streetscape” around the building.

The project will also impact the future of the empty lot on the southwest corner of 48th and Walnut, where the Windermere Apartments stood before fire destroyed that complex in 2011. Bank said the owners of that lot have been waiting to see how the old West Philly High would be developed before they made any decisions.

Parking for the building’s projected 400 or so residents was a concern repeatedly raised by those attending Saturday’s meeting. Bank said his firm will hire a parking consultant to devise a plan. He projected that roughly 10 percent of the residents would own cars, a guess he said that is consistent with other projects he has worked on near universities. If the consultant’s number is larger, he continued, the plan will expand parking.

“Parking is a revenue source, so I have no problem adding it,” he said.

Strong Place Partners’ bid is expected to be approved during a meeting of the School Reform Commission on Nov. 15. Bank would not comment on the bid amount or the expected cost of the renovation.

Once the firm’s bid is accepted, it will negotiate the agreement of the sale with the District before developing a construction timeline and beginning the zoning process, which is when residents will have more opportunities to comment on the plan.


53 Comments For This Post

  1. p Says:

    The city of Philadelphia is just becoming a patheic place to live, Everything is turning into apartments, condos,it’s just anoying. One already knew that this buliding was going to have something to do with upenn or drexel, soon there aren’t going to be any places for residents to live in West Philly Upenn and Drexel are buying everything up, and the city is allowing this to happen. Just pathetic

  2. Lou Says:

    P, as a close neighbor of this building in Walnut Hill, I think a hulking abandoned building and an empty lot are far more “pathetic” than market-rate apartments. With the abandoned Croydon, the old WPHS, and the empty lot where the Windermere once stood, this section of our neighborhood feels completely dead at night. I hate walking past WPHS at night. It’s poorly lit and there are few people around. So I can’t wait for some new residents and retail businesses to liven up that block.

    As for places where residents of West Philly can live…I assume you mean folks who may not have the same financial resources as a Penn grad student? Well, within a 2-block radius of this building, there are 6 large apartment buildings that are more affordable and also accept low-income housing subsidies: The Breslyn right across the street at 47th and Walnut, Locust Towers at Locust and Hanson, the Chatham at 49th and Locust/Spruce, the Wyngate at Spruce and St. Bernard, the Madison at 48th and Locust, and the Friends Rehabilitation Project apartments at 48th and Locust. There are also two senior living facilities just a few blocks away: Living Independently for Elders (LIFE) and the Mercy Douglass residences.

    Also, as the article states, the building isn’t going to be owned by the universities–it’s a private developer.

  3. Stacey Says:

    Sounds like a great plan for this part of the neighborhood and for this historic West Philly building.

  4. Kim Woodbridge Says:

    What’s wrong with wide sidewalks? “The development also calls for the scaling back of the wide sidewalks …”

  5. Anonymous Says:

    Kim, have you walked down the 4700 block of Walnut at night? It’s not “Ooh, there’s space for my three friends and I to walk together” wide, it’s “Crap, this feels so desolate like I’m on Mars” wide. You could park a row of cars on the other side of the fencing, not to mention parking closer to the building, and still have an unusually wide sidewalk. Probably the developer’s point.

  6. p Says:

    Don’t walk by then if your scared. Ride your bike, get a car, or get on the bus. We all know what this means property value goes up and people who can’t afford are force to leave. Also I know its not upenn or drexel, but whatever area that is near are going to be cater to people who attend the universities. Look at the area in 2000 compare to now its defintely a difference in ppl who live in the area

  7. Anonymous Says:

    p, I can make an observation of a streetscape without being scared.

    Anyway, you shouldn’t be complaining about private developers building market rate. That’s what private developers with private money do. You should be asking your elected officials, local, state and federal why they aren’t doing more to bring affordable housing projects to this area. Government grants are how affordable housing projects get done. Why are all the affordable housing projects going up in Mantua, hmm? Not that Mantua doesn’t need the love but are our councilwoman, state and federal representatives and senators satisfied with the affordable housing situation in the area immediate to 47th and Walnut?

    Or do you see that the people really failing you, failing Philadelphia, failing affordable housing in this part of West Philly are lifelong residents representing you in government and not this developer from out of town?

  8. Jerry Pink Says:

    A lot of folks can’t get those low income subsidies. There’s a huge waiting list. I miss the old West Philly. It hasn’t become safer over the years, just more expensive. Which is probably why it isn’t safer…

  9. Jerry Pink Says:

    At least it won’t be abandoned or destroyed. Bright side.

  10. GoldenMonkey Says:

    West Philly hasn’t become safer over the years?

    Your anecdotal evidence is contrasted sharply by police statistics.

  11. Lou Says:

    Thanks for the suggestion to not walk around my neighborhood. That’ll surely solve the problems associated with these huge abandoned properties, such as squatters, drug activity, illegal dumping, poor/no lighting, and fewer neighbors looking out for one another. These are problems that I and my neighbors deal with on a regular basis, living very close to the long-vacant Croydon, and not far from the fenced-in Windermere lot and empty WPHS.

    The School District placed a $6 million price tag on the old WPHS. It will require an extraordinarily expensive rehab that nonprofit developers could not afford. And that $6 million price tag and future real estate taxes will go to the School District, which I think we can all agree sorely needs the revenue.

    Real estate taxes are going up across the city next year with the new assessments, not just in areas getting new apartment buildings. Payment plans and property tax rebates up to $650 are available to low-income owner occupants and elderly homeowners. Make sure you apply for your homeowner exemption at and appeal the OPA assessment if you disagree with it. If you’re a low-income renter, make sure you apply for your rent rebate up to $650.

  12. slugmother Says:

    The West Philly of 2000 is not the West Philly of today, and the West Philly of today won’t be the West Philly of 2020 – places constantly change, and this is a beautiful part of town seeing a renaissance echoed by the rest of the city. I know if I had the money, I would be buying property here right now too… anyone know if the vacant lot at 46th and Sansom is for sale?

  13. Otis Says:

    A great reuse plan and one which will breathe much needed life and restored character to this area. I applaud the vision of the developers. It would be a shame to lose this historic building.

    On a personal note about 20 years ago, during my first day in West Philly, I happened to walk by this school. While pausing momentarily to get my bearings some kids yelled from out of a window “get the f**k out of here you stupid motherf*cling honkey. My first welcome to Philly. Later that day I decided to stay and put down roots.

  14. Marle Says:

    This is a great plan that will be VERY effective in gentrifying the neighborhood, raising the cost of living, and displacing black residents and working class families. Thanks for helping secure a bright future for wealthy, white outsiders!

  15. p Says:

    ”Marie” I applaud you. That’s exactly what’s going on in West Philly as we speak I glad to know that other ppl notice what’s going on in our community

  16. 45K Says:

    This is a major win for Philly generally and West Philly specifically- someone putting an 8 figure investment to renovate this landmark. A real developer, not some politically connected Philly hack using taxpayers money.

    We need this to spread around Philly’s high taxes- $ millions from wage taxes of construction workers, profits tax from their employers, sales tax on building materials, annual property taxes, use & occupancy taxes. That’s not even factoring in the taxes that will be paid by the hundreds of people who will live there.

    After 50 years jobs & taxpayers leaving, with the city jacking up taxes on everyone that remains, finally the city has turned the corner.

    Just goes to show you some people can find the negative in anything.

  17. 45K Says:

    And $6mm to our hard-up school district immediately.

    Marle, P, and the antis would rather just increase their neighbors’ property taxes AGAIN to make up for this. Stupid.

  18. J. Matthew Wolfe Says:

    “We all know what this means property value goes up” That’s good, right? The alternative is that property values go down and people lose value.

  19. mds chill Says:

    So what is the anti-“gentrification” position here — as buildings are vacated, fall apart or burn down, to just leave them and our neighborhood to decay?

  20. nabil Says:

    I really do feel for those who feel like they are being pushed out, but this isn’t government subsidized or Penn or Drexel, the neighborhood is changing for the better. Developments like this promote the use of public transportation and encourage more sidewalk use. This will benefit all. Local residents can try opening small shops if they can accumulate the capital.

    I grew up on 49th and Springfield and now live in CC. I did appreciate the grit of West Philly, but it just wasn’t safe back then. Also, you do realize those beautiful houses were originally built for upper middle class in the late 1800s early 1900s? They don’t belong to any ethnicity more than another. It really is cyclical, it is unfortunate that lower income residents have less options though.

  21. Happy Curmudgeon Says:

    I don’t understand how letting people live in a building that was previously a school takes away from anyone else’s ability to live in their home. Nobody is being pushed anywhere. Instead of a building full of kids during the day, it will be full of adults all night. Who cares?

    Residents need to stop crying gentrification as the problem. The real $$ problem is right around the corner when Nutter’s AVI takes over and property taxes skyrocket. You’d be happy to pay your modest ‘gentrification’ increase after you see what AVI will do to your bottom line.

    As for safety, the city is as safe as you want it to be. There are no secrets about areas that are frequented by no-goodniks. Be wary of headlines that paint victims as ‘overly innocent,’ too. Some are, but sometimes you also find out that the situations were of dubious nature and then the police get called. I know plenty of people who are afraid to travel the city on foot. They bike, ride, cab, or travel in groups. Or they move. If you’re a scaredy-cat, you’ll still be scared if you move.

    It’s a city, people. Deal with it.

  22. Hugh Says:

    As a neighbor (around the corner) I am happy with the plan (any plan for that matter) that will transform this rapidly decaying building into a useful place. In the few years that it’s been vacant this is the one proposal that comes forward. Face it, the City is almost broke, new RE taxes are coming soon to raise revenue, the school system has been shrinking, what do you expect if not some private money to come in?

  23. Sean Says:

    The school district is particularly broke. They are currently borrowing money from bonds just to cover operating expenses because they would not be able to close schools fast enough to cover their current budget deficits. Its dire, dire times at PSD so anything other than selling this building to private developer with cash in hand would be a real hardship financially.

  24. blurb Says:

    I’d like the posters above to list how much their property taxes have increased over the last few years, or list the people they know who were forced out of their homes because of unaffordable taxes.

    The tax rate is established by the city, seems like a better place to hurl criticisms of tax policies that have supposedly booted thousands of residents out of their houses.

    Last time I checked, Philadelphia’s taxes hadn’t been reassessed for decades – that’s part of the problem. “Gentrification” or whatever you want to call it, primarily effects rental prices, not taxes, at least in Philadelphia. If you’re upset about this area being unaffordable to renters, you could lobby for the city to use tax money to build affordable housing units – like the half dozen or so low-income apartments that exist within a block or two of this site.

    I have sympathy for people that are worried about being priced out of their homes, but the solution is not to try to stonewall development in an area that has a multitude of vacant land. The fact that people want to move to a neighborhood, work and pay taxes is not a bad thing.

  25. Kate Says:

    It’s nice to see some backlash against the anti-gentrification people, for once. I, for one, living right around this location, am overjoyed to see a project that will not only save a lovely old building but increase foot traffic, bring opportunities for local small businesses to set up shop, infuse much needed cash into the school system, [insert all the pros listed above]. I’m sorry that the general “you,” who rail against the ‘gentrification’ of the neighborhood, prefer blight to beautification. What I’m coming to learn is that this is likely much more a race issue than a “neighborhood” issue. I also understand why people hate the universities, but come on. The people who live in this area affiliated with the university bring a lot of revenue into the neighborhood.

    But you’re right. Damn them all, it’s much better to let this building decay, rot, and become yet another decrepit eyesore on the face of West Philly than to have a couple more white people with a little extra spending money enter the neighborhood. LET THE WHOLE NEIGHBORHOOD ROT! BLIGHT FOR ALL!

  26. Amara Says:

    Honestly would like to get feedback from both pro/anti this development on this map charting income segregation in Philadelphia as I don’t know what to make of it myself:

  27. J Says:

    Amara, that income map doesn’t really tell me anything about West Philly that I can’t already easily tell from walking around. The gray square is right where Garden Court and a whole bunch of beautiful houses between Pine & Baltimore are. I live right on the edge of that area and it’s obvious just by walking around that it is a little pocket of higher-income residents (though I wouldn’t say that pocket extends up to Locust). I’m not really sure what you were trying to get at in saying you don’t know what to make of it?

  28. LW Says:

    Hmm, yes, -what- don’t you make of it? It seems pretty self-explanatory to me. They miss out south of Baltimore to Chester-ish, but that may be an artifact of the census-tract sampling method.

  29. GoldenMonkey Says:

    I would imagine the the area to the east is skewed by all the students.

  30. LW Says:

    Looks like the ‘island’ is census tracts 79, and 86.01 (which is the southern half of tract 86).

  31. Kim Woodbridge Says:

    I haven’t walked at 47th and Walnut at night but if it’s dark wouldn’t better lighting make more sense than narrower sidewalks. 47th and Spruce is really dark too but the sidewalks aren’t unusually wide.

  32. The other p Says:

    The idea that this will somehow be bad for the neighborhood is a blatant disregard to anything going on around this area. Any project that reduces my chances of being robbed at gunpoint on the street that I live on are welcome in my book. I have been robbed a half a block from my house, so I’m not sure that taking any mode of transportation outside of putting a helipad on my roof would have stopped that from happening.

    I find it unbelievable that people of any race would disagree with the idea that stores, lighting, and most importantly more people will be a negative aspect to this project. It will help the immediate and surrounding areas financially and with safety. If paying the school district millions of dollars and building market rate apartments in two abandoned, run down buildings is some sort of secret plan to push the “true citizens” out of the neighborhood then for the first time in my life I fully support that notion.

  33. Amara Says:

    I understand that the map may be skewed by students, retirees and the super wealthy who may not work and that some of the weirdness may be due to census tracts but I was still surprised that areas of West Philly traditionally thought of as middle class or at least mixed income, such as Wynnefield where Mayor Nutter lives, still seemed to have a lot of red in them.

  34. p Says:

    One can get robbed anywhere, it dosen’t matter if there is plenty of lighting. We are living in times where it’s just getting worst for people to get a great paying job to keep up with paying bills. So don’t think it won’t happen again because they bring more students into a residential area. Look at and that will tell you better than I can

  35. Happy Curmudgeon Says:

    While I don’t expect any specific negative outcomes to such development, I also do not expect any specific positive outcomes either. One cannot assume that since a building full of students and young professionals is being established that it will cause a noticeable increase/decrease in anything.

    Look at Drexel. You’d think that having all those students around Powelton would decrease crime, right? wrong. For the longest time it just gave criminals more victims. And now it has given them more street patrols.

  36. GoldenMonkey Says:

    I actually wouldn’t expect a large # of students to diminish crime. At least not undergrads. The difference IMO is that the majority of residents associated with the university west of say, 45th St are grad students or faculty & staff. Generally an older, wiser crowd. I doubt the school will be filled with 19 year olds. With all due respect to Drexel, I’ve found their undergrads to be particularly reckless, drunkenly meandering down streets they shouldn’t.

    Still, I understand your point. Students will always be targets. I’m continually stunned when I read about someone getting robbed of an iPad at 3am on a Saturday night. What the hell are you doing using an iPad at 48th and Pine at that time?

  37. The other p Says:

    I’m not saying students in particular will diminish crime. It’s the fact that when there are bright lights and people standing on the sidewalk or outside of a bar @2am there is much less chance for someone walking down that block to be targeted for a crime then if it was empty and dark. The more populated an area is with foot traffic the better it will be for crime.

  38. GoldenMonkey Says:

    More bodies on the street, more eyes on the street means that even should crime occur, the odds are that the perp will be caught increase (hopefully). The school at night is a huge dark unwelcoming fortress.

    Now if we’re lucky, this will influence The Breslyn Apartments. There’s some very seedy elements thriving in that complex.

  39. n.d. Says:

    Aren’t both of these sides right?

    Isn’t redevelopment hugely helpful for a city that’s losing population, businesses, and tax base? And isn’t it disruptive when members of one educational/economic subculture begin to appear in large numbers in a neighborhood largely inhabited by another educational/economic subculture?

    I think HOW these changes happen is much more important. And, sadly, the dogmatic Taking of Sides makes it likely that it will happen poorly.

  40. Sarah Says:

    @N.D. I completely agree about the process being most important. I think this developer may be short-sighted and doesn’t seem to be completely aware of the neighborhood. (Thinking back to similar Apple Storage proposal that just fell through. To not have options to buy will actively encourage short-term residents and the area may scare away some of his target market…) That said, we all have opportunities to speak up and make sure our opinions are included in shaping what the final product looks like.

    In terms of the map, I looked up the report and “low-income” is defined as <34,000 while "high" is 104,000. I'm not sure those are the most useful categories for seeing changes within Philadelphia. Ie single grad student making 33,000 counted as low-income despite huge socioeconomic privileges compared to others in West Philly. Even areas like Mt. Airy, Chestnut Hill, etc have a similar mix to West Philly and the blue doesn't even cover large portions of the mainline and South Jersey suburbs. If you really want to dig in, here's a link to census data back to 1940 for all the tracts in the neighborhood. For instance, tract 87.01 went from 36% black, 37% white in 2000 to 16% black and 52% white in 2010 (faster than you can say "Penn Alexander"?)

  41. Sarah Says:

    Forgot the link:

  42. Jerm Says:

    so the offer was rejected by the reform commission? why even list a property if you are not serious about selling it? good way to waste everyone’s time.

  43. Sean Says:

    No this article just says that the School Reform Commission did nothing at all on 9 of the 12 school buildings they have already budgeted in for selling and West was one of the 9 they postponed for next time.

    They need the money – desperately. Currently the school district is borrowing money just to pay daily operating expenses. They need to limit the number of facilities they are paying to maintain and cash out any real estate holdings as fast as they possibly can. They are broke, broke, broke.

    Neighbors could postpone a builder from getting something done there but there is no way in the world the SRC doesn’t try to recoup what they can from that building ASAP.

  44. Amara Says:

    The three properties that were sold at the meeting were for in the low hundreds of thousands of dollars. Although the SRC seems to approve new contracts in the millions willy nilly pretty regularly, I am not surprised they weren’t yet ready to make the final decision to sell the old WPHS for a few million dollars. It’s just the nature of the board.

  45. 45king Says:

    No Nd both sides aren’t right. There is logic and fallacy. Right and wrong. Smart and stupid.

    Anti gentrification people complain about new taxpayers moving into the city. But they demand more tax money to pay for subsidized housing and city funded blight removal. This is is insulting and stupid- Give me your money, but stay out of ‘my’ neighborhood they say. This notion that new residents should be segregated on some sort of reservation approved by old residents is actually a perverse sort of apartheid.

    There is no shortage of vacant blighted property in Philly. Apple failed because there Is no real demand for market rate payees to move beyond 50th st.

  46. 45k Says:

    …no real demand that justifies the high cost of new construction.

    This is the definition of urban decay. We live in what was built 100 years ago until it burns down, falls apart, or otherwise becomes useless.

    “Anti-gentrification” activists are deeply anti-social and reactionary. The basic position is that they are happy to see the city fall apart so they can pay less rent. Deeply reactionary since they are motivated by fear of newcomers who might dilute the status quo political control.

    Take their position and apply it to a suburb that prevented new construction of any house less than $500k from being built to protect the current residents culture, banning low cost housing and section 8. Maybe add a tax system that rewarded long-term residents while penalizing new comers. All policies to support maintaining the current residents control and exclude newcomers…

    Would the anti-gentrification sympathizers be OK with that? Of course not. Would they respect these policies as the will of the people (not that anti-gentrification activists represent even a majority of their communities)? Nor should they.

    Not every debate has two sides.

  47. Janine Says:

    Wow, I will never complain about gentrification in W. Philly again after looking at that map of Fairmount and the river wards. I disagree that there is that much skewing. With the exception of big Victorian single-famiy houses, a great proportion of this area is still pretty low-income. Just regular people.

  48. ALDI manager Says:

    Our owner, Albrecht family of Germany, might change the current ALDI at 46th & Market to the Trader Joe’s banner, which we also own, in order to charge higher prices on identical product with more fancies moving into area.

  49. scott Says:

    This is great. Gentrification is hardly an issue in a city with extremely high vacanies rates. If anything Philadelphia, like Detroit, needs residents.

  50. scott Says:

    ALDImanager, I’m so thrilled. When will this change happen?

  51. Lou Says:

    Any updates on the old WPHS? I noticed construction dumpsters outside the building this week. I can’t believe this building is still vacant.

  52. suzette Says:

    I’m real glad to hear that West Philly high has good chance of being bought and renovated into apartments. I’m even more happy that there will be No Subsidized apartments in the building. I am a middle income person and retired but because I am not low income I cannot find an adequate cost of rental in at least a relatively good and low crime area. Accordingly, I am forced to pay an extremely unaffordable high rent in Center City and for an apartment that is not worth the high cost.

    And even in this extremely high rent building there are several subsidized renters and they come with children, whom of course are very loud and produce a lot of Noise.
    In these high rent Center City buildings the subsidies are provided by Medical Insurance companies and the Countries of foreigners, predominantly the Middle Easterners.

    My wish as a retiree is to get away from these families of Noisy children and they primarily are able to occupy because of the subsidies that pay their rent, many pay Zero, not even the little bit that would at least be required of a HUD Subsidized Section/8.

  53. goldenmonkey Says:

    Sounds like you made some terrible life choices.

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