A decade-long dispute over athletic fields in front of Abraham Lincoln High School appears to be eroding support for a $78 million project to build a new elementary school in Mayfair.
For some residents, it’s about a broken promise. They say the School District of Philadelphia promised to build a number of public fields at Ryan and Rowland avenues when Lincoln’s new building opened in 2009.
School District officials and representatives from Gilbane Building Company and Stantec, contractors on the project, appeared at the Sept. 16 Mayfair Civic Association meeting hoping to gain support for zoning variances allowing the new K-8 school.
Instead, after almost two hours of contentious discussion, civic members decided not to vote, opting to continue the case until a firm agreement can be reached.
It’s unclear how the lack of support will affect the project, or if it will at all. The plan is scheduled to go before the Civic Design Review Committee, which makes recommendations on large projects, on Oct. 1, and a zoning board hearing is scheduled for Oct. 16.
Not long after, shovels could be in the ground. Gilbane representatives said the company plans to start site work Nov. 15.
The School District has plans to construct a 180,000-square-foot school designed to accommodate 1,660 students behind Lincoln near Pennypack Park. It is being built to alleviate overcrowding at nearby schools.
Prior to the Sept. 16 meeting, community leaders, including representatives from the civic association, the 64th Democratic and Republican wards, Lansing Knights Youth Organization and Sixth District Councilman Bobby Henon, met and drew up a community benefits agreement.
It was later backed by the Mayfair Community Development Corporation and Business Improvement District.
The document included a litany of provisions — ranging from a dedicated campus police force to a dog park — but residents at the meeting focused on a request for the construction of five multipurpose fields for the community.
“To put it bluntly, the neighborhood kind of got screwed the last time” a school was built on the property, Mayfair Civic Association President Donny Smith said.
Community members have been less than pleased with the current situation in front of Lincoln, where the fields were supposed to be installed.
“I think we should stop using the word field for this area,” Democratic Ward Leader Peter McDermott said. “It’s basically just growth. It’s just weeds. And if it wasn’t for Lansing and Holy Terrors and St. Matthew’s, it wouldn’t even be growth.”
School District officials said they could only commit to evaluating the community use fields, as it’s not part of the plan to build the new school. Any project would need to be approved by the Board of Education, they said.
“We can in concept agree to the refurbishment of fields,” said Nicole Ward, the district’s design manager. “We cannot agree to the specific number of fields until we have done a scope of work and establish a scope of work.”
At several points, the meeting devolved into a shouting match between district representatives and neighbors.
“Here’s the sad part that I’m going to say: You are fighting the kids,” Ward said, after a resident suggested the civic association fight to prevent the school from being built. Her comments unleashed a wave of unrest among the crowd.
Not all seemed willing to halt construction of the school for the fields.
“I, personally, wouldn’t plant my flag there and make that the hill I die on, but that’s just me,” state Rep. Joe Hohenstein said.
Sixth District Councilman Bobby Henon asked district officials to include the community fields in their next capital budget.
“The question for the school district is: How can we get the resources from the school district?,” Henon said. “We want a commitment. The neighborhood wants a commitment, in writing.”
Ward and others from the school system reiterated that they would not be able to commit to spending money without the Board of Education’s blessing.
The project does include the relocation of Lincoln’s softball and baseball fields, which sit on the site picked for the new school.
Other demands included in the community benefits agreement were rejected outright.
The document called for the establishment of a campus police force comprised of officers with arresting power. District officials said school police, who cannot arrest people, would be stationed at the schools based on the number of students and budgetary considerations.
A provision in the CBA called for Austin Meehan Middle School not to be demolished as planned, but, rather, for it to be converted into a park ranger facility, senior center or some new purpose.
“The building will be demolished,” said Haniyyah Sharpe-Brown, who works in government and community relations for the district. “That is a conversation that we committed to the board.”
Community leaders asked for the K-8 school to be named after the late Harry Silcox, former Lincoln principal and Northeast Philadelphia historian. Sharpe-Brown said the district has a policy for naming schools and would not be able to commit to a name.
The CBA provided for the installation of a dog park on Ryan Avenue, but officials said the district would not permit one in an area with high student traffic. The school system would be willing to consider a park at the Meehan site when that school is demolished.
District representatives were open to some of the document’s suggestions, including security cameras, improved lighting and new fencing. However, Smith described the commitments as “watery.”
“We’re looking for some wins here tonight,” Henon told the district officials near the end of the meeting. “That’s what we’re looking for. Help us get some wins.”
If the project is not delayed, officials expect the K-8 school to be completed in May 2021 in time for the 2021-22 school year. Meehan’s demolition, which is a separate project, is tentatively scheduled to start in September 2021 and take about a year to complete.
Neighbors spoke about bringing the issues addressed in the CBA up at Board of Education meetings, and McDermott even suggested fighting the school project in court.
“We’re no longer going to be a diaper,” McDermott said. ••