Neighbors unsure of future plans for former Leidy School

by Manuel McDonnell Smith

Councilwoman Blackwell at Leidy Meeting (credit: Michael Burch)
Councilwoman Blackwell at Leidy Meeting (credit: Michael Burch)

For more than 50 years, Parkside students received their first lessons at Leidy School. On Monday, area residents discovered that there’s more homework to do, before coming to a community decision on what they’d like to see developed at the now shuttered property.

Closed for over a year and placed up for sale by the struggling School District of Philadelphia, officials are asking $2.3 million dollars for the three story school and adjoining yard covering 120,513 square feet bounded by Thompson Street, Belmont and Leidy Avenues. Whomever ends up purchasing the large tract is bound to make a large impact on the neighborhoods surrounding development for years to come.

Responding to a call to be “proactive rather than reactive to community decision making”, around 30 people packed a meeting regarding future development plans for the school held this past Monday at the Christ Community Baptist Church on 41st Street. Several area block captains were in attendance at the meeting, joined by city councilwoman Jannie Blackwell and ward leader Peter Wilson. Lorraine Gomez, President of the Viola Street Residents’ Association called the meeting the order and introduced the councilwoman to the assembled group.

Sharing that she “imagined that the community’s wish for the property to remain a school first because a school is what we [already] have,” Blackwell said that she was informed by School District officials that six to seven potential buyers had expressed interest in purchasing Leidy School property, although she could not confirm a final number since the district was handling the formal process of selling the twenty schools that are up for sale. She explained that City Council “tried to fight all of the school being closed” in the first place, and then attempted to manage the sales process but in the end, both of those political battles were lost. However, Blackwell said she will still have an opportunity to advocate for the community’s concerns regarding the schools when developers approach her office for support with zoning and other city regulation issues.

In that regard, Blackwell said she had heard directly only from two interested parties, the first being Michael Karp of the Community Education Alliance of West Philadelphia (CEAWP). Karp and CEAWP already has some experience in the nearby community as the non-profit umbrella for two area schools, Belmont Academy and Belmont Charter Schools. Blackwell said that her understanding is that the group plans to provide a “high school program” at the Leidy site since no other high school alternatives were available nearby. The CEAWP proposal also came with an offer of $2.3 million dollars to be delivered to the school district immediately, which could be particularly attractive to officials there given its looming large budget deficit for the upcoming school year. National charter school operator K.I.P.P. also contacted her office seeking “a letter of support” for their proposal to purchase the property. Blackwell said that KIPP was still awaiting the letter at the time of the meeting.

Community Residents gathered at the Leidy School Meeting (credit: Michael Burch)
Community Residents gathered at the Leidy School Meeting (credit: Michael Burch)

Viola Street’s Gomez was first to raise her hand to object to the possibility of a school at Leidy’s location, not because she’s objects to educational usage but rather the fact that “school [usage] is only 9-5 and does not lend itself to leaving an ongoing impact on the community. We’d rather something be put there that would be more substantial,” she said, “where people will stay.” Gomez’s idea was seconded by many in the room, including Parkside Journal Publisher Michael Burch who mentioned a proposal forward by private developer German Yakubov which would see a “Piazza” like proposal built on the Leidy site, similar to the popular apartment/nightlife complex credited with the rebirth of Northern Liberties. The councilwoman reviewed Yakubov’s proposal, featured on the cover of the summer edition of the Parkside Journal, but said she could not confirm if Yakubov submitted an official purchase proposal to the School District.

Other ideas proposed by meeting residents included retail establishments, a community center to serve adults and children, and even a banquet hall. Resident Michelle Johnson added that whatever is built needs to have some community purpose, since the closure of the school and the conversion of Memorial Hall to the paid-admission Please Touch Museum saw “the loss of basketball courts for youth. Another development at Leidy is likely to take something else away from the neighborhood.”

Blackwell & Wilson, who took copious notes at the meeting said a large community center on the site was unlikely due to the ongoing cost of maintaining such a facility, but added “if it is a commercial development…it can be negotiated with the developer to include some community space.” They both cited a “CBA” (Community Benefits Agreement) which developers in other parts of West Philadelphia have already agreed to before receiving community support. Blackwell specifically cited Drexel University’s agreement with the neighbors surrounding the former University City High School in which the University agreed to fund scholarships for local students, create a community advisory board, and hire from the community for eventual jobs at the complex.

That idea got ideas flowing again from many in the room about what the possibilities could be at the Leidy site. Ward said the most important step for the neighbors of the school was “to come together make one decision and be one”, so that he and the Councilwoman could support the idea with the eventual selected developer. Both promised to remain in close touch with community members as with additional information about the purchase process was available, and to convene additional meetings once developer(s) are selected. Gomez invited community members to stay involved and attend upcoming neighborhood meetings and brainstorming sessions where consensus a list of community concerns could be finalized. The Parkside Journal will continue to closely follow any developments regarding the sale of the Leidy School, and will keep readers informed in print and on Facebook.

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