Note: for an update on this story, read about the district’s offer here.
Student numbers at Lower Merion Middle School are expected to nearly double from a low of 5,000 to 9,300 in the next decade. This jump in student enrollment pushed school district officials to start looking for a new home for Lower Merion Middle School. Students and parents complain of a lack of parking and seating space at events and rushed lunches due to overcrowded dining halls. It’s clear that the school district needs to expand. What’s less clear is where the new or expanded middle school could go. There’s simply not that much available land in the suburb. School district officials sent letters of intent to four different properties in the area in April. However, each property comes with concerns. A letter of intent to purchase is simply a serious but non-binding way for a buyer to express interest in a property. It does not mean the property owner is interested in selling, however.
The four properties under consideration are:
A portion of the St. Charles Seminary in Wynnewood
Past discussions of building a new middle school at St. Charles Seminary were abandoned after pushback from the Archdioese. The Lower Merion School District is again looking at the site anyway. At a meeting on May 16, the township voted to protect St. Charles Seminary, adding further protection and complexity to this potential site. School district officials have stated that this is their preferred property, as it’s the only property that could host all of Lower Merion’s new needs in a single area. The site is expensive, at $29 million for one portion and $15 million for another portion. The slopes are also steep on the site, presenting building challenges. Finally, the Lower Merion Township is working on protective status for a historic home on the site. Building a new middle school here will be expensive and require lots of logistics.
The Lower School of Friends’ Central in Wynnewood
This property has already informed Lower Merion School District that they would not sell to them. Parents of students at the school and other stakeholders are unlikely to support motions to move the Lower School of Friends’ Central. Because Lower School of Friends is a school, there’s no possibility of Lower Merion School District using eminent domain to force the property owners to sell.
Stoneleigh Farm in Villanova
Stoneleigh Farms is the most controversial option available to the school district at this time. The recently opened botanic gardens are free and open to the public six days per week. Supporters of Stoneleigh farms stormed the school board meeting in May, protesting the district’s moves to take the property away using eminent domain. The Haas family gifted Stoneleigh farms to Natural Lands, hoping to preserve the property for future use. Natural Lands Trust, owners of Stoneleigh, said that they would refuse to sell and would mount a legal battle if Lower Merion School District attempted to take the property using eminent domain.
The Islamic Foundation property in Villanova
Although this is the only property that has agreed to sell to Lower Merion School District, the Islamic Foundation Property is not viable on its own. It is too small, so the school district would also have to purchase at least 6.9 acres from Stoneleigh Farm and use fields at Gladwyne. The Islamic Foundation property also has steep slopes, making building on this site challenging. Like other properties on the list, the Islamic Foundation property has historic buildings that are under protection from the township.
Legal Battles and Logistical Challenges Abound
Estimated construction costs for the new school are between $91 million and $105 million. According to letters from the school district, the district offered $7 million for the 22.3 acres at the Islamic Foundation, $15 million for the 16.9 acres at the Lower School at Friends’ Central, $20 million for the 38.52 acres it wants at St. Charles and $2.7 million for the 6.9 acres of the Stoneleigh property. The school district has already determined that sites at the former quarries of Rock Hill Road and Kaiserman JCC in Wynnewood are unsuitable for a school. The only property seller that has expressed interest in selling their property to Lower Merion School District is the Islamic Foundation, though it is not the top pick.
For an update on this story, read about the district’s offer here.
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