The Edward W. Bok Technical High School in South Philadelphia held its final graduation yesterday and today its doors will close for good, but the future of the 75-year-old building is still uncertain.
In an effort to determine the best possible future use for the space, a group of concerned community leaders and industry experts gathered to share ideas at a Schoolhouse Watch Forum last night hosted by AxisPhilly.
Event moderator and senior writer for AxisPhilly Solomon Jones was clear about the importance of finding an option for reuse of the building.
“Bok sits on 2.2 acres of land and if that building remains vacant, then there goes the neighborhood,” he said.
Bok is one of 23 schools closing at the end of the school year. Philadelphia School District spokesperson Fernando Gallard said the District hopes to get the properties on the market as soon as possible.
“We’re going to be aggressive with finding options for reuse of these buildings because we certainly don’t want to see them vacant for long,” he said.
The city has valued the Bok property, which was built in 1938, at $17.8 million and estimates that an additional $55 million in repairs would be necessary to bring the building up to code. It's located at 8th and Mifflin Streets and is historically significant. Bok Tech is one of the only school buildings in the city that was entirely financed and constructed by the Works Progress Administration, according to the website, HiddenCityPhila.org. Bok is one of the last remaining schools designed by Irwin Catharine, who was the school district's chief architect from 1920 through 1937.
The forum opened up discussion about various aspects of the new vacancy from soliciting the right types of buyers to protecting the property from vandalism prior to its sale.
Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia Research Initiative director Larry Eichel was among a panel of industry experts that weighed in on the issues. Eichel said selling the buildings quickly and profitably will be a difficult challenge for the District.
“A lot of these old buildings do not sell for the asking price, they actually sell for a lot less and the problem with a lot of school buildings is that they’re in neighborhood locations, not commercial or prime residential locations,” Eichel said. “There are already a number of school buildings that have been closed and have been sitting for six or seven years and when you have 23 buildings closing at once, it’s just a lot. You wonder if there’s going to be demand for those properties.”
If and when the Bok building is sold, both Jones and Gallard agree that community input will be vital to the decision-making process for reuse of the space.
“We’ve definitely been in touch with the School District and Deputy Mayor Greenberger and they are aware of what we’re doing and we’re engaging them in this process to make sure they are aware of the community’s concerns,” Jones said.
“We will be outlining our own process that will seek input from the community but if there are groups that have already collected information, we welcome any and all input that would be useful to the process of finding reuse for these buildings,” Gallard said.
Among those in attendance were a number of passionate alumni who expressed concern for the fate of the school’s memorabilia. As of yet, neither the District nor the school has announced any formal plans for preserving the school’s trophies, medals, and keepsakes.
Bok alumna Genevieve White said she hopes to play an active role in finding a place for those mementos.
“I’m really passionate about Bok. I’ve talked to a couple of alumni and I was thinking we could maybe raise money to fund a clubhouse so that we can house the trophies and memorabilia. I just want to reach out to the community and councilmen to see if they can help us to launch this mission,” she said.
White says she’s optimistic that this could happen in the near future. City Council’s First District Councilman Mark Squilla, who was also in attendance, promised to reach out to District Superintendent William Hite to confirm if there is a plan currently in place for where the memorabilia would go.
While plans for the building are moving forward, panelist and community leader Anton Moore agreed that preserving the past is equally important.
“This is a great opportunity to form a Bok alumni community network. This is the perfect opportunity to get things going. I think you can’t just let the legacy die.”