Court case threatens Mayfair school agreement

The 64th Democratic Ward has appealed a zoning decision allowing for the construction of a new K-8 school behind Lincoln High School.

Pete McDermott speaks Tuesday, Oct. 1, at the Civic Design Review committee meeting about a plan for a new school on Ryan Avenue. TIMES FILE PHOTO

Recently-filed litigation threatens to undermine a hard-won agreement between the School District of Philadelphia and Mayfair Civic Association over a planned new school on Ryan Avenue.

Attorneys for the school district and its contractors say the case could even disrupt the entire $78 million project. 

The 64th Democratic Ward, led by Pete McDermott, on Dec. 18 appealed the Zoning Board of Adjustment’s decision to grant variances needed for the construction of a 180,000-square-foot K-8 facility behind Lincoln High School, 3201 Ryan Ave.

McDermott declined to comment. A post on the 64th Ward’s Facebook page said the appeal was being filed because the law firm and/or the project’s developer, Gilbane Building Company, didn’t do enough to alert neighbors about the project.

Only two zoning notices were posted for the 95-acre parcel, which also includes Austin Meehan Middle School, and the civic meeting where residents voted to support the school was sparsely attended, the post said.

“If more signs would have been posted, and a sincere effort made to notify neighbors, hundreds would have had their say,” the post read. “We know a school is needed, but the community must be heard, and it’s the Applicants’ responsibility to ensure that the proper outreach is conducted.”

The 64th Ward post said it was not basing its appeal on the community benefits agreement, which was hashed out by Mayfair Civic leaders and district officials at a special meeting on Oct. 28.

However, it did characterize the deal as “developer/applicant friendly,” as compared to a previous version of the agreement.

As previously reported by the Times, the CBA, which was signed Nov. 4, provided for two new community-use fields at Rowland and Ryan avenues — a key concern for residents — and the rehabilitation of a football practice field currently used by Lincoln in the same area. 

It also includes fencing improvements, enhanced lighting, a possible dog park (after Meehan’s planned demolition), the development of security plans and a renovation to Lincoln’s football stadium. 

The first line of the agreement stipulates that it is fully contingent on a lack of opposition, including appeals, from the Mayfair Civic Association and the 64th Democratic and Republican wards, though the document was signed only by the civic.

It’s unclear whether the school system has to, or will, fulfill the provisions. A district spokesperson declined to comment.

Mayfair Civic President Donny Smith, who signed the CBA, said he didn’t know much about the appeal and his organization is not involved with it.

“We’re honoring the signed community benefits agreement… and we’re hoping that the school district will do the same,” Smith said.

Rendering of new K-8 school planned for the area behind Lincoln High School. SOURCE: SCHOOL DISTRICT OF PHILADELPHIA

The district and Gilbane have moved to have a Court of Common Pleas judge throw out the appeal. 

In a motion filed Dec. 23, their attorneys said McDermott and the 64th Ward filed its litigation after the 30-day period for zoning appeals had elapsed. The last day it could have been filed, they say, is Dec. 13.

The motion says the situation is urgent, as construction needs to get underway soon if the developer hopes to have the school ready for the start of the 2021 school year. It’s being built to house 1,660 students and reduce overcrowding at nearby schools.

“Mayfair Elementary School is overcrowded. It was built to house 1,063 students — its current population is 2,223,” the document says. “This late appeal threatens the entire project.”

Unless a judge puts a “stay” order on the project, crews can start or continue working on the site even as the appeal remains active.

Additionally, the motion to quash says neither the 64th Ward nor McDermott introduced any arguments against the variances during the zoning process. 

McDermott works for the district as a career and technical education teacher at Benjamin Franklin High School in North Philadelphia. He has previously said he is not opposed to a new school, though he has expressed concerns throughout the process.

And it has been a lengthy process. Before the ZBA’s November decision, community leaders and district officials had been working for months to hammer out terms that could work for both sides.

The negotiations were tense at times, as residents recalled what they saw as broken promises the district made when Lincoln was rebuilt more than a decade ago.

A hearing on the appeal has yet to be scheduled. ••

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