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Dreams of artsy future for Stevens school

Photo: Ashley Hahn

by Ashley Hahn for PlanPhilly's Eyes on the Street
 

This piece was originally published by Notebook partner PlanPhilly's blog Eyes on the Street. EOTS is a blog about good design, great neighborhoods, vibrant communities, interesting architecture, smart planning and development projects, and the many people who make those things happen in Philadelphia.


Developer Eric Blumenfeld is dreaming up a new future for the vacant Thaddeus Stevens School of Practice on Spring Garden Street east of Broad. Blumenfeld is in contract to acquire the building and wants to redevelop it into a mixed-use commercial arts and residential property.

You might know the Stevens building as host to the huge Common Threads mural above the parking lot on the northeast corner of Spring Garden and Broad. But turn the corner and head east on Spring Garden and you’ll notice the vacant but beautiful 1920s school building clad in special Sayre and Fisher bricks, accented by colorful terracotta tile flourishes.

The Stevens building is a gem and it’s been waiting for someone to give it a new purpose since the School District sold it in 2005.

Of course, development is bubbling up along North Broad from City Hall to Temple University, particularly near stops on the Broad Street line. From City Hall to Vine development is driven by government and big institutions, the area between Vine and Spring Garden streets is becoming Bartistan, but from Spring Garden to Fairmount it’s Blumenfeld’s domain.

Blumenfeld is one of North Broad’s enthusiastic boosters. His company EB Realty Management is scooping up properties, emboldened by their successful conversion of 640 North Broad and partnership redeveloping the Wilkie Buick site at 600 North Broad. Blumenfeld is the guy who brought Mark Vetri and Steven Starr to North Broad. Blumenfeld also recently made news for his dreams of creating a new educational campus at the Divine Lorraine.

Of course the Divine Lorraine would be the keystone redevelopment project for the corridor, but I think that all of the development interest at the intersection of Spring Garden – where Bart Blatstein and Eric Blumenfeld’s investments meet – is an important measure of how much North Broad is changing as bigger developers set their sites on the corridor.

Plans to redevelop the Stevens building could prove to be an instructive demonstration project in smart redevelopment of a historic school as the city faces even more school closures and surplus buildings.

The Thaddeus Stevens School of Practice was built in 1926 as an elementary school where it served as a teacher-training school, and consecutively served as a sort of proto-magnet school and regular neighborhood school into the 1970s. The Philadelphia School District closed the Stevens building in 1975, but continued to use the building for administrative functions until 2005 when it was sold to local development firm, Synterra.

I first got inside the Stevens building tagging along with Penn students researching the property for a historic preservation course last fall. It’s got a ton of original features from its school days, like the beautiful multi-colored terracotta tiles inside and out, and it seems to be in pretty good exterior condition for a building that’s been vacant since 2005. Here’s a slideshow peek:

The floor plan is a little tricky, but it’s easy enough to imagine the middle floors becoming apartments. Inside the building’s details are plain but intact. There are beautiful accents like the exuberantly tiled entryway and attractive woodwork, and some spaces like the gym still have ropes and rings hanging from the ceiling. In other areas the School District did crudely adapted some of the spaces for administrative uses. An added bonus: the rooftop offers very cool views of the city.

Evidently Synterra purchased the building hoping to preserve and redevelop it but has been unable to do so, hence the pending sale. Blumenfeld told me that he’s in contract to purchase the Stevens building property as well as the corner parking lot at Broad from Synterra.

While the Stevens project is still in its early stages, Blumenfeld said he is “planning on bringing a 2100 square foot art studio to occupy the gym on the top floor,” noting that the incredible light would be fabulous for painters. He added that he envisioned building residential units around the arts-based commercial uses on the ground and top floors.

But Blumenfeld will only be able to redevelop the building if he can pull several tax credits out of his “bag of tricks,” and it remains to be seen if all of the pieces will fall into place.

Because the Stevens building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, Blumenfeld can apply for Federal Historic Preservation rehabilitation tax credits, which means the redevelopment has to be preservation-minded.

And now that Philadelphia has New Markets Tax Credits to use, Blumenfeld is trying to access those for his Stevens redevelopment plans. That program requires 20% of the space be used for a commercial use, and that’s where an arts-based group comes in. Blumenfeld won’t say whom yet (the lease is out, and an announcement should come within weeks), but he hinted at a first floor gallery space and top floor studios.

As for that highly visible corner lot and Broad and Spring Garden, Blumenfeld acknowledges that ground-up development is a ways down the road. But because it irregularly juts out of the normal grid, that lot is a high visibility parcel ripe for an iconic building. All told, this corner lot and the Stevens building have too much potential to stay vacant forever.

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