2016-01-07_08-55-44

It’s bland.  It’s cold.  It’s dreary.  Just like your marriage will be.

The Fishtown Neighbors Association has a zoning teed-up for this dead hulk of a PECO power station next to Penn Treaty Park.

In May 2015 proprietor Joe Volpe and his brand Cescaphe Event Group picked up the power plant for $3 million.   Developer Bart Blattstein was also mentioned last year in murmurings about the project to be in the mix.  We kinda hope Blattstein is still in there somewhere, since he hasn’t been doing all that much since his hopes and dreams of a casino in the old Inquirer Building went down the shitter.

According to a post by FNA, the intended use of the property shall be:

Proposal to reuse the existing PECO power plant for an events hall with 3 ballrooms, corporate headquarters, Floral services, (2) restaurants, 80 hotel rooms, 430 parking spaces, and a riverfront trail.

80 hotel rooms.  Sounds like you can have some really gigantic weddings in this jawn.

So far a refusal has not been issued by the Department of Licenses and Inspections for either of the two PECO properties:  1325 and 1325R Beach Street.

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Bok Technical High School was the gem of the New Deal-era of Great Spending under Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The Art Deco monolith was built to bring vocational skills to new adults in South Philly
The Depression-era Art Deco monolith was built to bring vocational skills to new adults in South Philly

Built under a grant from the Public Works Administration, the massive Art Deco castle was meant to guarantee that every child living near 8th and Mifflin would graduate from high school with direct marketable and employable skills; mainly in the building trades.

But after a 75-year run, the School District of Philadelphia was ready to give Bok up because of the huge plant maintenance costs to keep the building maintained and fully heated.  As newcomer parents tend to avoid the School District of Philadelphia wherever possible, family sizes are less than half of what they once were at the time Bok was built, and charterization of the school district has led many District kids to flee into the hands of charter school operators and Bok’s capital costs only increasing over time with fewer students, the SDP put Bok on the chopping block.

Under the 2013 round of public school closures, the vast floors have sat empty.  The SDP then sold Bok off for a cool $2.1MM to eccentric proprietor Lindsey Scannapieco, daughter to Rittenhouse condo builder Tom Scannapieco.   Lindsey has spent several years in London at a design firm that specializes in reinventing old spaces.   Obviously the future of Bok will involve something that’s going to cater to the creative classers–the ones who would be foolhearty enough to pay enough rents into the building to maintain the massive ancient plant systems in the basement needed to heat what amounts to  two city blocks of space compressed into one building.

Yes, a “makerspace“.

Le Bok Fin [PhillyMag cred: Michelle Gustafson]
Le Bok Fin [PhillyMag cred: Michelle Gustafson]
While Scannapieco has been trying to figure out how to repurpose the space she has opened “Le Bok Fin”, an homage name to the former kitchen at Bok Technical, which itself was a pun to the famous (now shuttered) restaurant of the Philly upper-crust, Le Bec Fin.   As it is on the roof of Bok, the space offers a stunning panoply of South Philly rooftops leading to the sharp peaks of Center City.  View-wise, it’s the urban version of the Teton Mountains few get to experience.   And no one did until the highly popular pop-up came into being.

Now here’s where we go into the bizarre.  Almost predictably, this disastrous hyperbolic-infused screed against the repurposement of Bok and everything wrong with society-in-one-blog-post gets penned and published to Teachadelphia by Kayla Conklin.

Conklin screws up everything ‘wrong’ with Bok by:

  • Completely ignoring how and why the school was built in the first place (and who paid for it)
  • Ignoring the legacy capital costs that led to Bok being put on the SDP’s shortlist of school closures
  • That Bok attendance had declined significantly enough by the time of closure that all the students were swallowed up by Southern.  The technical vocation programs at Bok were relocated.
  • Blaming the whole thing on white people who have jobs

In fact, Teachadelphia has been on a tear lately with multiple ‘Bok is teh terribles!’ trolldom over the last several of its articles.

In essence, this is classic nonsensical SJW tripe.

Conklin herself appears on a BillyPenn listicle of “16 young teachers and leaders shaping education in Philly”.   There, she’s described as a “9th grade English teacher at Esperanza Academy Charter High School” [emphasis mine].

Now we have arrived at the core irony of her Bok pieces.

As Conklin is completely oblivious to local history and how Bok came to be closed in the first place, I’ll provide a rough timeline from memory:

  • June 22, 1997:  Pennsylvania enacts the Charter School Act.  One of the first pioneers of the alternative school administration method, it’s touted as a solution to the systemic and intractible failures of central district systems.   Intended for Philadelphia and adopted by a few other Pennsylvania counties, the law allows private entities to contract with the state and local districts to own and operate schools.
  • February 1998: Facing what was a severe deficit, the School District Superintendent David Hornbeck threatens to shut the School District of Philadelphia unless Harrisburg restores state aid funding to levels not seen since 1975 when the District reached peak population.  The move shocks state legislators who are met with waves of panic by angry constituents.  By April, Harrisburg legislators responded with a lightening fast maneuver to strip the school district away from the City of Philadelphia.  This sparks a deep legal battle between the City and the Commonwealth.
  • 2001:  Legal fighting between the City and Harrisburg finally ends and the City cedes control over the school district to the state.
  • 2001-2011:  The following decade sees several rapid bursts of charter school contracting, most notably during the 2005-2006 period.   Charters are seen by many inner city parents as a solution to intractable violence issues at their local schools as charter operators offload some of the burdens of legal liability and are offered more room to control discipline.   Charter funding causes more vacancies to form at District schools while legacy costs remain, making District closure an inevitability.
  • 2007-2008 – While the City has been able to enjoy some revenue growth from 6 years of a condo building boom, property tax revenues start to fall statewide, due to the effects of foreclosure, particularly across middle-class neighborhoods like East and West Oak Line, Mayfair and Tacony.   The Commonwealth also tightens up and state funding does not increase.
  • 2011-2012 – Facing job loss, attrition, population shifts, calcified plant costs and legal bills, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia dramatically retracts its school system offerings and embarks on an ambitious program of real estate sales, leading up to the sale of the megaplex campus of Cardinal Dougherty High School.  This provides a blueprint for the SDP who is also planning on massive closures.
  • 2013 – In one of the largest consolidations in the District’s history, the SDP embarks on a massive school closure spree, shuttering 24 schools, including Bok in a bid to slash capital and plant maintenance costs.

What’s done the SDP in, and took Bok with it, has been a perennial lack of stable revenue that local property taxes are simply not going to buttress.  Real estate is a good revenue source, but it’s not symptom-free and in poor districts like ours with a worst-in-the-nation tax collection record, we rely on state handouts which have never flourished.

When Harrisburg took ownership of the system which removed direct local management of the district it lifted the visibility of the state delegation that Philadelphia sends to represent itself in Harrisburg.   That opportunity has not produced much, save for some state pols like Senator Anthony Williams who are effectively circus fairground attractions who dote on parents and look like they care, but have been administering and brokering this failure for years by boosting charterization of the District, a process that has been financially destructive to the District’s balance sheet despite the unquantifiable blessings that the charter school cheerleaders champion.

What’s sad is that Conklin’s dystopian myopia is warped by simple-minded social justice classicism and unawareness of the facts I’ve outlined leading up to Bok’s closure.  She then she takes her venom out on unsuspecting white hipsters chugging Genny Cream Ale in former school desks on Bok’s rooftop, as if they somehow must be rejoicing in Bok’s catharsis and are somehow directly responsible for its fall; like hipsters must have devised this as some strategically-placed landmine in the Gentrification Wars.  Conklin even takes some time out in the comments to rail against dog parks.  Sigh.  She doesn’t get it.

Something tells me Conklin’s rage could just as easily be transmuted into joy if she was told the building was being repuposed into affordable housing.   Or perhaps a dildo factory that hires locals.  Anything but white people eating arugula salads.

As far as redeveloping Bok, there’s at least some good news in state case law.   In 2014 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard a zoning case over the shuttered Nativity BVM school in Port Richmond which will certainly be a legal template for any future repurposement of these dead city-block-sized behemoths that are in dire need of a new life.

In the BVM case the entire project to repurpose the shuttered Catholic elementary school into senior apartments was held up by one neighbor over a single street parking spot.

After the appeal was sustained in Commonwealth and then reversed in Pennsylvania’s highest court, any zoning attorney that would be advising Scannapieco right now might want to keep that case handy in the fan file.

While it’s difficult to live next to such large single-purpose buildings built in an era when owning cars was a luxury, there’s not many car-free uses that could come to Bok to completely re-use the building, short of imploding the place and turning it into a paid surface lot.

The community as a whole will have to deal with Bok’s 75 year history as an urban city school being over.   That might not mean that education will never be a use that’s inside the building.   No community is meant to live encased in amber for all eternity.

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The inside of 1942-58 N Front St
The inside of 1942-58 N Front St

Several years ago Kensington and Fishtown were caught in a quagmire over a proposal by the Women’s Community Revitalization Project to demolish two bank buildings at the intersection of Front and Norris, near the Berks stop on the Market-Frankford Line, in order to build ultra-low income rental houses.

Neighbors on Hope Street, which is adjacent to this property, hastily formed a Registered Community Organization in response to the project in order to voice their objections over the lackluster design, which called for parking ramps on their no-parking street, the lack of ground floor commercial space as the property is zoned commercial, and that there was no intention to save what the neighborhood considers to be historic properties that are worth preservation, and indeed they are.

Well, the banks are going to see new life and will be saved from further decay.   A. Jordan Rushie, Esq., who represented neighbors who challenged the proposed project in Common Pleas court and prevailed, had this to say:

Today is a great day for East Kensington and Fishtown. I am pleased to announce that the historic banks on Front & Norris Streets are being rescued by Onion Flats, an internationally known design and development firm with offices nearby.

As some of you my recall, it was a long and hard fought legal battle. Initially the ZBA allowed a developer to tear down the historic banks for ultra low income housing. A group of neighbors and civic associations filed an appeal to the Court of Common Pleas. Isaac Slepner represented Jesse Gardner, who submitted an amicus brief on the historic value of the buildings. I represented the civic associations and neighbors, and briefed the legal arguments with respect to the zoning issues.

Two years ago we stood in Judge Ellen Ceisler’s courtroom and explained why these two historic textile banks should be saved and repurposed. Chris Somers provided expert testimony on their value, and Jesse Gardner informed the judge that he was ready to purchase the banks that day should they come on the market. The people prevailed, and the gavel came down in our favor.

This final development proves once again that “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Onion Flats, a development group on West Norris St. that has had extensive experience with historic redevelopment projects in the area will restore and redevelop the bank buildings.

Since the court decision, WCRP was able to find vacant land for their project nearby in the Somerset area of Kensington.

Score a huge win.  Streets Commish David Perri after hearing the trials and tribulations of Celia Pretter, a Mt. Airy resident who discovered that the Streets Department dump sites [what Streets calls “Sanitation Convenience Centers”] would only accept people driving in their personal cars or cheap small pickups.  Vehicles over 6,000 lbs. would not be accepted, including short box U-Haul trucks and even cargo vans.

That’s bad news for those who can’t fit trash in the backseat of their cars.  And according to Commissioner Perri, 138,000 Philadelphians did just that last year.

But not anymore!   After Memorial Day you will be allowed to drive pickup trucks, cargo vans and short-box U-Haul trucks into the centers. [Philly.com]

For this, Streets Commissioner David Perri gets MUCH, MUCH love from us.

Just be sure your driver’s license has a Philadelphia address, and roll up to any one of the City’s three main centers, which are open from 8-6 Monday through Saturday (minus City holidays):

Southwest Philadelphia

3033 S. 63rd St., near Passyunk Ave. (Google Maps)
215-685-4290

Northwest Philadelphia

300 block Domino Lane, near Umbria St. (Google Maps)
215-685-2502

Northeast Philadelphia

State Rd. & Ashburner St. (Google Maps)
215-685-8072

I am so frustrated with people who will not put the screws on or lay the blame for blight where it truly belongs; in the hands of the property owner who holds the deed to a property.

But what about individual residents fighting blight?   Baltimore Slumlord Watch posts the names and home addresses of people who own shell corporations holding craptastic property in hopes to get the City of Baltimore to pay attention, not that different from what I do here in Philly.  Property that is blighted, property that is attractive to crime, and property that is inflicting direct damage on neighboring property.   Many of these owners are indifferent to it all because they know they won’t be punished.  But there’s others who are truly vile scumbags.

So it is with great regret that I’ve come to learn my compatriots in Baltimore, the only other rowhouse city that’s similar in character to Philadelphia, are now actively being sued by an asshole scumbag who is lashing out after a mural was painted on one of his shells identifying who the owner is for all to see.

While I haven’t yet reached the point yet where I’ve felt compelled to paint the names and home addresses and phone numbers of slumlord owners on their own buildings; the thought has certainly crossed my mind.  City Council has talked openly about requiring vacant property owners to post contact information signs on their own property or risk fines.

Perhaps Philadelphia City Council should pass an immunity bill permitting identification murals or marks on dilapidated property so we can start writing the the names, home addresses, telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and maybe even their estimated net worth on their own buildings for all to see.

I can think of at least a half-dozen excellent graffiti artists in Philly who are more than capable of making eye-catching historical “blight markers” and they would be proud to do the work.

More on the lawsuit, here.