PHILADELPHIA » A Victorian-era dye factory is taking on a new role to help this city’s troubled public school system attract and retain teachers.
Two redbrick buildings in the up-and-coming but still gritty South Kensington section of Philadelphia are being converted into apartments and offices intended to house teachers and nonprofit educational organizations in what the developers hope will become a cohesive community.
When the renovation is complete, 60 percent of the buildings’ 114 apartments will be reserved for teachers, who will be offered a 25 percent discount on market rent — paying about $1,000 a month for a one-bedroom unit in a neighborhood where they typically rent for $1,300.
The remaining apartments will be available to the public. In addition, a quarter of the 160,000-square-foot space is being turned into offices for education-related nonprofit groups like Teach for America, which will use 10,000 square feet of renovated space as its regional headquarters.
The buildings, scheduled to be ready in time for the 2014-15 school year, will have conference rooms, a coffee shop, a health club and a copy center to help teachers with their lesson plans.
The idea of bringing educators together in an affordable, supportive housing complex is intended to make teaching in city public schools a more attractive option — particularly for those new to the profession — and to reduce the risks of burnout.
"It’s an especially hard job for young teachers who relocate from other cities and find themselves among tough students in poor neighborhoods," said Greg Hill, a principal, along with Gabe Canuso, of D3 Real Estate Development, which is leading the $36 million project. "We’re creating a community of like-minded people."
The complex, renamed Oxford Mills, is modeled on two similar centers in Baltimore, where there is now a waiting list of about 70 teachers for 96 apartments that have been designated for teachers and others in education since 2009.
The developers are able to offer rental discounts because of state and federal tax credits based on the historic nature of the properties and on the economically challenged nature of their locations, said Donald Manekin, a developer of the Baltimore buildings and a partner in the Philadelphia project through his company, the Seawall Development Corp.
"But for the tax credits, these projects couldn’t happen," said Manekin, a former chief operating officer of Baltimore City Public Schools. The Baltimore buildings were the first of their kind in the United States, he said.
The Baltimore centers were backed by Teach for America, which trains recent college graduates to teach in poor neighborhoods. It identified school systems in New Orleans, Philadelphia and Washington as targets for an expansion of the program.
Matt Gould, Teach for America’s vice president for administration, said that he had no data on the retention of teachers who have lived in the Baltimore centers, but that there had been anecdotal reports that teachers want to live among their peers and close to the communities in which they work.
"It allows them to have safe, affordable housing," Gould said. "It’s a recruiting tool."
The buildings that will house the Philadelphia center began life in 1875 as the Quaker City Dye Works. The complex became a warehouse for textile waste in the early 20th century and in the 1960s was converted into a lamp factory, which went out of business in the early 2000s. The complex, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was bought in 2012 by the current developers.
After considering other sections of Philadelphia, the developers chose a neighborhood that was once a thriving manufacturing center but is now pockmarked with empty lots.
While the postindustrial landscape, just a few miles from downtown Philadelphia, may be uninviting, it is sandwiched between the fashionable neighborhood of Northern Liberties and the tough but gentrifying Fishtown section. Local rents are already rising, Hill said.
For the school district, the project is part of the efforts to improve a notoriously low-performing system.
The superintendent, William R. Hite Jr., who attended the groundbreaking last month, said the project would help retain teachers in the district, where only 64 percent of students graduated on time in 2012 and 82 percent are classified as economically disadvantaged.
Hite said the development would also help Philadelphia identify itself as a city that is seeking teaching talent at a time when the district is closing schools and consolidating the student population in response to falling enrollment.
Teachers living among other teachers are less likely to experience social isolation, he said.
"Unlike other professions, individuals may feel very much alone," Hite said in an interview. "They go back to their respective places, and they don’t have other individuals with whom they can share their challenges or successes."