Walking along Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill you can easily miss it, somehow.
Walking along Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill you can easily miss it, somehow. You head north up the hill from Bredenbeck’s. You pass Chestnut Hill Hotel, the Jenks School, and arrive at Iron Hill.
You’ve already walked right past it.
The Verizon building, the largest piece of commercial real estate in the neighborhood’s business corridor at nearly 67,000 square feet, sits across the street from Jenks School at 8318 Germantown Ave. Usually closed and locked, the rectangular red brick building sometimes sports the occasional spray of graffiti on its metal doors. Partially obscured by trees and appearing rather nondescript, the only hint about what it’s used for is a small “Verizon” placard next to the front door.
But the building sticks out like a sore thumb to those who want to see all of Chestnut Hill’s commercial corridor fully developed and thriving. Count among them Ann Nevel, retail advocate for the Chestnut Hill Business District, who sees the building’s current lack of daily activity as a kind of ‘dead zone’ for commercial foot traffic, an issue of concern for people who run businesses on the lower half of the Avenue.
“There are so many possibilities,” said Nevel, who is interested in building a more cohesive commercial link between the uphill and downhill blocks of Germantown Avenue. “I would love to have something there that meets the potential the building offers.”
John Landis, a Chestnut Hill resident and professor emeritus of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania, said that while the current building “in no way presents a nuisance, it also doesn’t allow the community to take advantage of its size, location, and construction quality to provide a more desirable and contemporary land use.
“It could easily be repurposed for housing,” he added. “Not cheaply, but easily.”
Landis said that while Chestnut Hill residents care a lot about what the impact such a large building may have on the neighborhood, an international telecommunications giant like Verizon likely views it as “some entry on a spreadsheet nobody ever looked at.”
“I imagine nobody at Verizon has ever looked at this underutilized real estate asset and thought ‘What can we do with this?’” Landis said in a phone call. “It probably isn’t worth their time.”
He may be right. According to Kimberly Ancin, director of corporate communications for Verizon, the company is not interested in either selling or redeveloping the building. Ancin said it remains in use for its telecommunications services and is otherwise unavailable.
“There are no other plans at this time for that to change,” she said.
An interesting past
The building is perhaps best remembered by long-time Chestnut Hill residents as the location of the former Chestnut Hill Theatre, a movie theater that operated until its final showing – “A Clockwork Orange” – 1973, according to the website Cinema Treasures.
Originally opened as The Belvedere Theatre in 1914, the facility went through several upgrades in its nearly six decades of operation. What original designs show is that the venue started as a 315-seat theater for silent movies and later received upgrades for sound and air conditioning, according to Cinema Treasures. But following its closure the theater property was obtained and demolished by the Bell Atlantic Corporation, later renamed Verizon, which owned an adjacent building.
Since that time, the company has used the property as a “central office,” which in industry parlance means a switching location where telephone wires converge. Such offices are located in many areas of dense development, and Chestnut Hill Business Association staff say it’s their understanding that the Chestnut Hill Verizon building services parts of Northwest Philadelphia and Montgomery County.
But central offices, traditionally located in robust buildings that could accommodate large volumes of physical switching equipment once needed to handle calls, have undergone changes in recent decades. As customers switched to cellular phones, and computerized equipment shrunk to a fraction of the size it once was, companies like Verizon no longer need so much storage space.
And Verizon has been willing to sell elsewhere. In 2014, for instance, The New York Times reported on a mini real estate bonanza in that city that was brought about by Verizon selling 10 of its 60-some buildings for a total sum eclipsing $1 billion.
That’s certainly not the case for the Chestnut Hill building, and neither are there any signs of Verizon doing something similar anywhere else in Philadelphia.
“They completely went dark.”
Phil Dawson, executive director of the Mt. Airy C.D.C., said he led an effort to engage with Verizon about the building during his previous stint as the director of the Chestnut Hill Business Association.
He made some headway: Dawson and others were given a tour of the building in 2019 after city officials helped connect him to Douglas Smith, vice president of state government affairs for Verizon.
Dawson says he saw a lot of potential. A memo he wrote while at the business association quoted Smith as saying that only 15% of the building was still being used for telecommunications equipment. In an interview this month, Dawson said he floated various ideas to Verizon to repurpose the rest of the building, such as potentially bringing back a boutique movie theater or putting residences on the top floor, which offers views of the Center City skyline.
He said Verizon staff did predict some potential difficulties with repurposing even parts of their building: some wiring and other equipment are sprinkled throughout its footprint, so sharing space would require thoughtful renovations. Still, Dawson was optimistic.
“We had a very positive meeting at the time. [Smith] let me know there was some precedence for this kind of thing,” Dawson said, adding he recalls that Verizon repurposed a similar building in West Philadelphia for educational use for the University of Pennsylvania.
But, after a few additional points of contact, Verizon “just completely went dark,” according to Dawson.
“They stopped responding to emails, phone calls,” he said.
Dawson said he tried to reestablish contact, reaching out to Mayor Jim Kenney’s office, which connected him to an intermediary in the telecommunications industry.
“That conversation did yield at least a response through the intermediary, which is that [Verizon] did not find it viable to have further talks about that site,” Dawson said. “They weren’t interested in pursuing it.”
Asked about the prior interactions and the prospect of any future re-use or redevelopment, Verizon officials did not respond.
Still, Dawson said he’s glad to hear that Nevel shares his desire to see the building reused for a more interesting purpose, and hopes it could one day happen.
“I’m hopeful for Chestnut Hill that they can get to a place where Verizon is willing to come to the table… and think creatively about it,” Dawson said. “I think there’s a strong benefit for the neighborhood there.”
But Landis said he can’t envision a scenario in which the city or the Chestnut Hill Business Association has enough sway to convince Verizon to put the building to better use.
“It would take a developer – not Chestnut Hill and not the city – approaching Verizon and saying ‘I’d like to buy this from you, and here’s what I’ll pay,’” he said. “At that point, they might entertain something.”
Local reporter Tom Beck contributed to this report.