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A new kind of homeroom Old middle school to house Temple students.

By Jennifer Lin INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

Classrooms are dusty and empty, halls silent. But reminders of student days at John Wanamaker Middle School at 12th Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue are everywhere.

Artwork on yellowing paper lines the walls of a dark auditorium. Smudged chalk notes cover blackboards. Gymnastic rings hang at the ready.

Closed four years ago, the Wanamaker School in North Philadelphia is set to come back to life, but with an unusual new mix of uses – apartments for Temple University students, a charter school, a training center, a community hub for neighbors.

The $250 million project, which City Council approved last month, is a partnership between the nonprofit development arm of Bright Hope Baptist Church and the Goldenberg Group, a Blue Bell-based developer.

With Temple’s main campus next door, the Wanamaker property had been sought by many developers, including the university itself. The Bright Hope-Goldenberg partners paid the school district $10.75 million for the nearly five-acre site.

Renovations could begin next spring, with the first student apartments available in the fall of 2011.

The Rev. Kevin R. Johnson, senior pastor of Bright Hope, which sits across the street from the Wanamaker School, called the hybrid use of the building “revolutionary.”

“It’s something that not only needs to be done,” Johnson said, “but should have been done a long time ago.”

Temple’s explosive growth in recent years has strained relations between the university community and the surrounding neighborhoods.

Enrollment has jumped 60 percent in the last decade, to about 26,000 undergraduates. Today, roughly 40 percent of them, or about 11,000 students, request nearby housing. But with just 4,500 dorm rooms, Temple can guarantee on-campus housing for only the first two years – a policy change made in 2004 in response to rising enrollment, said Michael Scales, Temple’s associate vice president of student affairs.

The presence of more and more students in the neighborhoods is not without problems.

Residents of Yorktown, an enclave of suburban-style single homes on the south side of Cecil B. Moore, have complained about late-night parties, dwindling parking, and absentee landlords who fill single-family homes with students.

Colin Jones, an executive vice president for the Goldenberg Group, said the new Wanamaker Center was an attempt to “marry Temple’s needs, ours, and the community’s.”

“You have to have community support,” Jones said. “Otherwise the project’s not going to be a success.”

Like many universities, Temple is not building dorms but relying on the private market to provide space. In recent years, developers have converted buildings or constructed residences to house 3,000 students.

Projects now in the works would make available another 3,000 beds. While the size and configuration of student apartments vary, the average cost for a student is anywhere from $650 to $750 a month.

Bart Blatstein, who developed the Edge at Avenue North near 15th Street and Cecil B. Moore, is planning a second apartment project next door with 1,100 beds.

The Philadelphia School District closed the Wanamaker School in 2005. It was used briefly after Hurricane Katrina to house displaced families from New Orleans but has been empty since then.

The first phase calls for converting the north side of the building into seven floors of housing for about 600 students.

As part of that, Jones said, the Goldenberg Group will abide by a 1997 consent decree between the school district and the Environmental Protection Agency to remove a limited area of contamination from polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in a generator room. “We’re used to dealing with this,” Jones said.

The south side of the Wanamaker School will be reserved for community uses. Although those plans are still in the works, they ideally will include a charter school, a “green technology” training center, and other space for community uses, Johnson of Bright Hope said. He envisions “an empowerment village” that raises the educational level of children and adults from the area.

Through its nonprofit community development corporation, the church is looking at possible models for a kindergarten-through-12th-grade charter school. Johnson said he would like to start small with a kindergarten program, adding one grade a year.

Later on, the partnership plans to add retail space and build two residential towers on the site.

“By Bright Hope being involved in this project,” Johnson said, “it is really our extending a hand to Temple to begin anew.”

 

Contact staff writer Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659 or jlin@phillynews.com.