It looks like a clear plan for the massive Germantown High School complex is finally coming to fruition. The fate of this historic property has been uncertain since it closed in 2013 and the School District of Philadelphia decided to dispose of it shortly thereafter.
The main school building was originally constructed in 1914 with multiple additions being added throughout time as the school serviced more students. Walk the grounds between Germantown Avenue, Baynton St., High St., and E. Haines St., and you will find examples of educational building architecture ranging from 1914 to the late 1960’s. At its peak, Germantown High had an enrollment of more than 3,000 students.
The buildings sold to developers in 2017, and we have been waiting to hear what was in store for the site since then. About a year ago, the new owner of the complex met with the community, proposing a plan that would bring 236 residential units, 159 parking spots, a charter school, coworking space, and other community uses to the Germantown High School buildings along with the Robert Fulton School across the street.
Nearby residents called for a community benefits agreement with the developer after hearing about the plan. As the massive parcels are zoned Residential Single Family Attached-3 (RSA-3), the development team wanted local support for the project to assist in their quest for a variance from the Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) for multifamily and mixed uses on the site.
The need for a variance changed when two significant events happened over the last year. Mayor Kenney signed a bill into law in November of 2019 aimed at aiding in the preservation of Philadelphia’s historic architectural treasures. The bill eliminated parking requirements for locally historically designated structures. It also gave zoning relief to owners trying to redevelop a historic property into a use that does not conform with the designated property’s zoning classification. For instance, it would allow a multifamily project within a historic church or factory building even if the building was not zoned for that use. We think this bill was a huge step forward for Philadelphia, which has been demolishing its history for decades. We need to make it easier and more economical for historic buildings to be saved, not harder and more expensive. Shortly after this bill was signed into law, a second major event happened regarding this property. The Germantown High School complex was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.
These two events opened the door for the owners of Germantown High to pursue a multifamily project without needing a zoning variance. Germantown High School sits on two legal parcels. In April, permits were issued for the change in use for the larger parcel at 5915-41 Germantown Avenue to allow for 277 residential units on the property. This address includes the original building as well as most other school buildings. Then, in June, change of use permits were issued for 61 E Haines St., a separate legal parcel that holds an addition built in 1968, that allowed for 75 more residential units within that building. No parking is required on either property. The Robert Fulton School building is not included in this project currently.
Many will argue that this project is too dense and that there is not enough parking included in the plan. However, many other people will be happy to see these buildings saved and look will forward to the increased residential density along the Germantown Avenue corridor. The local businesses will soon have hundreds of new customers in the neighborhood. This amount of people will likely even lead to new businesses opening and increased amenities. We think this project will be a major win for Germantown and Philadelphia.
How do you feel about this project? Are you happy to see the buildings saved? Do you look forward to more people calling Germantown home?
Kyle is a commercial real estate agent at Rittenhouse Realty Advisors, a homeowner, and a real estate investor in Philadelphia. Kyle uses his extensive Philadelphia real estate market knowledge to help his clients buy and sell multifamily investment properties, development opportunities, and industrial sites.
Email Kyle@RittenhouseRealty.com if you are looking to buy or sell a property