Early on a quiet, sunny Wednesday morning, Jean Wallace walked around the old Greylock mansion, inspecting the century-old home’s spacious rooms, some damaged by water and a bit of neglect.
The average homebuyer would be shaking her head, imagining tens of thousands of dollars in renovations. But for Wallace, the water-stained walls, the oddball room decorations (a drop ceiling here, a purple carpet there) and a dark, dank basement represented nothing but opportunity.
“You know how when you come to a house and you feel like, ‘This is the one!’” she said. “For us, this is it.”
Wallace, CEO of the Green Woods Charter School, which announced its intention to buy the Greylock mansion at 209 W. Chestnut Hill Ave., said the chance to move her school onto the spacious grounds of Greylock brought together a whole number of things that she and others at the school were very excited about.
“Here, we have the opportunity to repurpose a building, which we thought was so cool for our kids, our staff and our board to be part of,” she said. “It would give us the chance to do what we preach all day.”
Green Woods Charter school, a K – 8, environmentally focused charter school, has been operating at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education since it opened in 2002. Like other charter schools in Pennsylvania, it receives funding based on a certain number of dollars awarded for each child enrolled. Green Woods receives $8,700 for each student. The current student population is a little more than 200, but Green Woods plans to expand to more than 600 students in a new facility.
The move to Greylock – Green Woods entered an agreement of sale with the property’s owner, Greylock Holdings LLC for $2.2 million – is the centerpiece of the school’s growth plans. The school met with neighbors on Feb. 20, but neighbors soon decided that the school’s expansion plans were bad for the neighborhood and suggested that Green Woods find a more suitable location.
“We showed them the large drawings and we talked through the process,” Wallace said. “Two concerns that came up were about the easements and the traffic. And we talked about how we felt what we were going to do would enhance the easements. Three weeks letter, we got a letter that said if you want to talk with us, talk to our lawyer.”
Neighbors have raised a number of concerns, the largest being the impact of adding the traffic from a 700-person school to Chestnut Hill Avenue. But more important to neighbors, they say, is the preservation of the property, which is provided for by an expansive easement document created in 2000 and held by the Chestnut Hill Historical Society. In order to see to the enforcement of those easements, neighbors have formed an organization called the Chestnut Hill Landmarks Committee.
The committee drafted a letter in March to inform the school of its position insisting that the school find a new home. Among other sites neighbors have mentioned, one is the Ivy Leaf Charter School in Germantown, which is for sale for $1.4 million and is located next to Awbury Arboretum.
Wallace said the charter school did look at other locations, but none worked nearly as well as Greylock
“The other sites had nothing on them – they were empty lots,” he said. “Philosophically this became an ideal spot with it s proximity to Fairmount Park … We could safely let our K through 4 students have a safe use of the on-site outdoor learning. It’s confined enough that we don’t have to worry about exploring safely.”
Wallace said the school has submitted its plans to the historical society and is waiting to hear back on the status of its application for easement amendment.
But more than anything else, neighbors argue that the school’s plans would violate a substantial series of preservation easements held by the Chestnut Hill Historical Society
“The plans of the school are not in keeping with the easements,” said neighbor Brad Bank, an attorney who is a member of the new landmarks committee, in a statement to the Local last weekend. “One of the stated purposes of the 2000 agreement that conveyed the original easements, is to avoid increased density and congestion. There is no way to reconcile the high impact use of a school with the property’s protective easements. The easements were put in place precisely to prevent such use as proposed by Green Woods.”
Indeed, according to the 2000 easement document, there is much more to the easements than maintenance of the building’s appearance and the open space of the property. The document contains a long list of restrictions, including language that would maintain the mansion as a private residence “and converted into no more than nine condominiums.”
A section in the use restrictions also calls for “no more than two car trips per day by business visitors,” if the building were ever converted from residential use.
“The proposed changes to the Greylock property, including the construction of an additional 16,000 square feet of building, would leave it fit for nothing other than a large institutional use in the future,” said Bank in his statement. “This does not preserve conservation value.”
For the school to go ahead with its plans – a three-phase, multi-million-dollar effort – it needs the historical society to amend the easement document. The historical society currently holds 35 easements worth more than $10 million covering 70 acres of open space and 12 historic building facades.
The historical society’s interest in preserving the easement is to maintain its standing as a nonprofit preservation entity, a status, neighbors argue, that the society would jeopardize if it amended the easements in a way that would allow the school to build on the property.
The society’s rules on amending easements seem to be fairly strict. According to its website, “it is the policy of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society to hold and enforce its conservation and preservation easements as written. However, CHHS will consider amendments in the limited circumstances outlined in this policy … Generally amendments will only be considered by CHHS if they advance or have a neutral impact on the conservation purposes of the easement, or if they are intended to clarify or correct errors in the original easement or exhibits.”
According to CHHS executive director Jennifer Hawk, the society has amended easements it holds three times in the 20 years it has run its easement program.
Wallace said the school’s lawyers did review the easement document and she said the school received a lot of positive feedback from the historical society when it first brought the plans to the organization. Wallace said she believed that what the school plans to do – to adopt the old mansion into a school, to preserve a great deal of the property’s open space and improve the property’s environmental impact on the Wissahickon – would advance the preservation goals of the easments.
For now, she said, the application to amend the easements has been submitted to the historical society and the school is waiting to hear back. That decision is entirely in the hands of the historical society, which has the legal standing and obligation to maintain and enforce all of its easements.
Still, the decision is being watched closely by many in Chestnut Hill who have weighed in on the matter.
Neighbors opposed to the school’s plans gathered 100 signatures from nearby residents in a petition delivered to the school at a recent meeting of the Chestnut Hill Development Review Committee.
And this week, the school forwarded a petition to the historical society and the Friends of the Wissahickon, signed by 425 residents of Chestnut Hill, supporting the school’s acquisition and move to Greylock. Included with the petition was a map charting the household addresses of signees that show support spread throughout the neighborhood, from north Chestnut Hill to south, east to west.
As some have pointed out, charter schools currently do not select their students – they are chosen by a lottery system. Wallace said, however, that several charter schools have been given permission by the School Reform Commission – the body in charge of the Philadelphia School District and issue of school charters – to employ geographic preference, meaning the school could favor students in the Northwest neighborhoods of Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy, Germantown and Roxborough. Green Woods charter is up for review in September. The school has asked the School Reform Commission to expand its charter to increase its enrollment.
Bank, in his statement, declined to comment on the school’s plans moving forward, suggesting instead that the Chestnut Hill Landmarks Committee was taking a firm stance on the easement matter.
“We would rather not discuss the school’s strategies or speculate on the proceedings,” he wrote, speaking for the committee. “We have confidence in the CHHS process for enforcement, and we stand ready to assist, enforce, and maintain the easements in any way possible.”
Bank referred to a statement made by Greenwoods architect wondering why the school doesn’t look elsewhere.
“ Joe Jancuska, architect planner for Green Woods, stated ‘We don’t want it to work unless it works for everybody,’” Bank said. “And this clearly does not work for everybody, let alone Chestnut Hill as a whole.”