Wissinoming Civic Association members spent about two hours last week listening to a proposal by Tacony Academy Charter School officials to demolish a billiards hall and storage units and build a high school on the site.
While some neighbors favored the proposal, others expressed concern about traffic, parking and the school’s proximity to train tracks.
At the end of the Feb. 27 meeting, after half the crowd had departed, civic association president Richard Young called for a vote.
Several of the vocal opponents were not permitted to vote, as Young cited bylaws requiring members to pay $10 and attend three meetings before having a formal say.
“Richard, why didn’t you say that in the beginning?” one woman asked.
“What was the purpose of bringing us all out?” asked another woman, waving a $10 bill.
In the end, a mere 13 people voted. The count was 9-4 in favor of the school proposal.
Jerry Santilli, founder of the nonprofit educational management organization that runs the school, explained that Tacony Academy wanted neighborhood approval before it appears in front of the Zoning Board of Adjustment.
At present, the school is conducting an environmental review and seeking a loan from M&T Bank.
“We have an agreement of sale,” Santilli said.
The school is buying the ground at 6201 Keystone St. for $1 million. Groundbreaking is expected to take place in September, meaning Tacony Billiards would likely close in the summer.
Santilli said union labor would work on the project. The high school is expected to be ready to open in September 2014.
At present, Tacony Academy High School is located at the former St. William Elementary School on Rising Sun Avenue in Lawncrest.
American Paradigm Schools, its parent company, also operates a Tacony Academy elementary school on Rhawn Street in Rhawnhurst, in the former Orleans Technical Institute building.
The company also operates First Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School, at 4300 Tacony St. in Frankford Valley, and Memphis Street Academy Charter School, in Port Richmond.
Initially, Tacony Academy wanted its elementary and high schools on the same campus.
“We couldn’t find that,” said Stacey Cruise, the CEO of American Paradigm.
Tacony Academy first eyed the St. Vincent’s Home, at 7201 Milnor St., but the Archdiocese of Philadelphia did not want to sell to a charter school. Next, it looked at the former Armor Plating Plant, on Princeton Avenue near the Delaware River, but there were environmental concerns.
As for the high school, Tacony Academy previously looked at the Keystone Street property, but it was not for sale. Now, it is almost theirs.
“We’ve always loved this site,” Santilli said.
The high school will enroll 400 students.
“It’s a small high school, by high school standards,” Santilli said.
Cruise told the crowd that 75 percent of its high school students would otherwise attend Abraham Lincoln or Northeast high schools. The rest can come from anywhere in the city.
According to Tacony Academy officials, the School District of Philadelphia is open to amending the charter to include students coming from Wissinoming-area schools in that 75 percent figure.
Jay Clough, managing principal of KCBA Architects, described the property as “a tight site.” He said, though, that there would be enough room for 70 to 75 parking spots, along with 25 drop-off areas and green space.
The school would be three stories high and would be designed without windows in the rear to serve as a buffer to the train tracks and I-95.
The education officials told neighbors the school would be an improvement for the site, and asked for their support.
“We want to walk down the aisle with you at our side,” Santilli said. “Give us a chance to make it right.”
Some neighbors, though, weren’t swayed. One man asked why the school was needed.
“Would you want to go to Lincoln or Frankford?” Santilli replied.
Others don’t want the additional traffic, especially when there are openings of the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge.
When Cruise asked, “What time does the traffic let up?” the neighbors laughed.
Santilli agreed to conduct a traffic study, but some neighbors remain opposed to the construction of a new school.
A few neighbors said they were worried about vandalism to their property.
“High school kids are worse than grade school kids,” one woman said.
A Tacony Academy sophomore, who identified herself as Mary Margaret, said she and her classmates are respectful.
“We’re a good group of students,” she said.
Some neighbors, noting the 30 nearby homes that were demolished in 1999 because the ash landfill they were built on was crumbling, wanted to know if the site was safe.
Builder John Parsons said the engineering studies will show whether the soil is safe enough to proceed.
Parsons gave his own pitch for the school, likening the discipline and character at Tacony Academy to what he experienced with the Immaculate Heart of Mary nuns at St. Martin of Tours.
Opponents, though, left disgruntled, not only because of the outcome of the vote, but because so few people got to make the decision.
“It ended up being a waste of time,” one man said.
Wissinoming Civic Association will meet again on Wednesday, March 27, at 7 p.m. at Wissinoming Presbyterian Church, at 5825 Torresdale Ave. (at Howell Street). ••
Reporter Tom Waring can be reached at 215-354-3034 or firstname.lastname@example.org