Germantown High WHYY

This rendering shows Germantown High as a mixed-use development including a school, apartments, co-working and a café. — Courtesy of Woodcock Design

A $50 million proposal to renovate the former Germantown High School site into a mixed-use facility is moving forward, aided by a city provision allowing the adaptive reuse of historic structures — a provision some neighbors say cut them out of the zoning process.

Developer Jack Azran and Eli Alon obtained use permits from the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections this week, allowing a maximum of 277 residential units to be built within the existing high school building.

The site design is being handled by Janice Woodcock, of Woodcock Design, and architect Ray Rola. In a Thursday phone interview, Woodcock said the decision to move forward with a by-right project was made in April, and that the site owners pulled use permits this week to help secure financing.

“I can confirm the project is moving forward,” she said. “I don’t know if there is a firm timeline for construction, but you will begin to see activity on the site related to cleaning and securing the site.”

City Council moved last year to ease zoning and parking restrictions to encourage the adaptive reuse of certain tough-to-develop historically certified buildings, like churches or gymnasiums. The bill was signed into law last November.

The permits pulled this week allow the building to be renovated with no parking and a higher unit count than the project pitched to the community last summer. However, Woodcock said the plan, for now, was still to stick to the earlier proposal: 236 one- or two-bedroom housing units with 159 parking spaces, accompanied by a cafe, coworking space, a charter school and community facilities.

Still, Woodcock said the building had been repeatedly vandalized since private owners took control of the site after the school district auctioned off the vacant building in 2013. She said the building was full of debris, while several fires had been set inside the structure and copper piping stripped.

“At this time, there is really no change in philosophy about the project,” Woodcock said,” but there may be adjustments when we see what the conditions are inside.”

The reuse of the historic school, which sits at the heart of the Germantown neighborhood and the intersection of several community groups, led to tense meetings between developers and neighbors and local Councilwoman Cindy Bass. Concerns ranged from a lack of transparency around the project — including rumors the site would be replaced with a shopping center — to the affordability of housing and minority contractor inclusion as well as worries about the preservation of the ornate stone and brick building.

Azran, who purchased the property in 2017, made verbal commitments to a 20% minority contracting goal and the inclusion of a percentage of affordable housing at the site. Yet, some residents say they still have concerns.

Patrick Jones, who formed an organization called the Germantown Community Alliance, authored a letter decrying what he described as a “covert” attempt to cut neighbors out of the development process.

The historic nomination was filed by community group Germantown United to stave off demolition, prior to the introduction of by-right adaptive reuse rules. Jones said the later introduction of those provisions had effectively let the site owners withdraw from negotiations around a community benefits agreement.

“We’re very upset they’ve moved forward without the community,” he said. “It snuffed our voices out.”

Jones, a former Bass staffer who later ran for the local City Council seat, said his group was still seeking firmer commitments around affordable housing and community inclusion for jobs generated by the project. He said he had sought to schedule a community meeting to draw neighbors’ attention back to the development, but the process has been hampered by COVID-19.

“We’ve been trying to get the developer to come back to the negotiating table,” he said.

This article first appeared on WHYY.org.

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