Mayfair school gets design approval, but still no deal with neighbors

Mayfair’s new K-8 school passed the Civic Design Review process, but the project could be delayed over ongoing community concerns.

Pete McDermott speaks Tuesday, Oct. 1, at the Civic Design Review committee meeting. He represented the Mayfair Civic Association at the hearing. JACK TOMCZUK / TIMES PHOTO

Mayfair’s new school cleared its first hurdle — getting approval from a city design committee — but tensions between the School District of Philadelphia and neighborhood leaders continue to bubble.

The sometimes-contentious negotiations, over public fields, security and other issues, threaten to delay construction of the K-8 school, which will be behind Abraham Lincoln High School. 

On Tuesday, Oct. 1, the project was approved by the Civic Design Review committee in a split vote, but not before a nearly one-hour discussion about various aspects of the plan. 

District officials are aiming to open the school, which is meant to relieve overcrowding at nearby elementary schools, in fall of 2021. For that to happen, contractors will need to break ground next month.

Getting approval from the Zoning Board of Adjustment is integral to the timeline. A hearing is set for Oct. 16, and neighbors are expected to show up and make their voices heard.

Mayfair Civic Association President Donny Smith said he would likely ask for a continuance if the School District and community leaders don’t reach an agreement.

Smith said there’s a perception that neighbors are being set up to be blamed if the school is delayed, and it bothers him. 

“If there’s a delay in the project, it’s not our fault,” Smith said in an interview. “We’re trying.”

He believes the School District is viewing community support as a “formality.” 

“The community, I think, supports the idea of an additional school,” Smith added. “It’s just a matter of getting it right this time.”

Neighbors went through the process before, when Lincoln’s new building was built more than a decade ago on the same 95-acre site.

At the time, residents say they were promised community-use fields, which sat where the new building was constructed, would be relocated in front of the high school, near Ryan and Rowland avenues. 

That didn’t happen, but district officials say they will renovate the area, which neighbors have compared to an untamed lawn.

“The district is committed to refurbishing the fields, but a scope of work has to be developed and all of that before any kind of work can happen,” said Haniyyah Sharpe-Brown, who works in government and community relations for the district. 

Smith said the civic association hasn’t received a timeline or other specifics about field improvements.

Last month, residents at the civic association meeting were frustrated after district officials declined to sign a community benefits agreement that dealt with the fields and a litany of other issues. 

The CDR committee focuses on the architecture, layout and aesthetic aspects of large projects, making non-binding recommendations. However, some of the underlying issues inevitably made their way into last week’s meeting.

Matt McClure, an attorney representing Gilbane, the developer of the new school, speaks during the Civic Design Review Committee hearing. JACK TOMCZUK / TIMES PHOTO

At times, CDR chair Nancy Rogo Trainer had to interject to refocus on the conversation.

“This is a chance to talk about the design of the project that we do have, not the design of the project that we don’t have,” she said.

Ward leader Peter McDermott, who represented the civic association at the meeting, said he had concerns about whether the school was designed around outdated enrollment numbers. State Rep. Joe Hohenstein, who also attended, and Smith echoed those sentiments.

Officials have said the school will serve 1,660 students. McDermott said the district’s own enrollment projections show that the catchment area, which still hasn’t been finalized, could include 2,000 students.

“The size of the school doesn’t look like it’s going to be big enough for the projected number of students that are coming in the future,” Smith said.

After making modest recommendations, the CDR committee passed the plan 5-2. McDermott, allowed to sit on the committee as a community representative, voted to continue the case, while Lauren Atwell, an aide to Councilman Bobby Henon and also a temporary CDR member, voted to move the project forward.

Smith said the civic association is organizing a group to go to the ZBA meeting, which is scheduled for 2 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 16, at 1515 Arch St. Anyone interested in attending is asked to email MayfairCivicAssociation@yahoo.com

In the meantime, district officials and neighborhood leaders said they’ll continue to work toward addressing various sticking points. 

“We’ve been in touch,” Sharpe-Brown said. “We’ll continue to be in touch with them, talking through what they’ve asked on the CBA.”

“I think we’re making a little bit of headway, but we’re not there yet,” Smith said. ••

Jack Tomczuk can be reached at jtomczuk@newspapermediagroup.com.