Lindsey Scannapieco is the Managing Partner of urban design collective Scout in Philadelphia. Scout is focused on re-purposing vacant and underutilized buildings. In 2014, Lindsey purchased The Bok School building, two years after the 8-story vocational high school closed, with hopes of utilizing the existing space as a place for local businesses.
Today, BOK leases to dozens of local makers and businesses - 80% of which are self-owned and 48% which are female-run. BOK also has a few hospitality components: a ground floor coffee shop and an impressive rooftop restaurant and bar. We spoke with Lindsey about the vision behind BOK, finding opportunity within existing architecture, and letting a community build naturally.
Visit BOK with us!
We're excited to visit BOK on April 20th as we explore 4 sites focused on unifying the city during Day 1 of INDIE Confab Philadelphia. - Beyond the Walls: Exploring Philadelphia. Grab your All Access Pass to hear from Lindsey while touring the space!
What was your original vision for Bok?
Our original vision for Bok was to see what was still usable in the building from these old vocational classrooms. Then we’d try to find people who needed the same amenities or infrastructure. For example, this was a building where there was a culinary art classroom. How could that be used by a food producer? Today that is home to a catering kitchen. There was an old wood shop. We said well we know there are wood workers looking for space. So it was really about matchmaking the existing building to people who could use what already existed.
Tell us about the history of the building.
The building was built in 1936 as a vocational high school and opened to 3,000 students in 1938. It wasn’t just people from the local community who attended this school, but from all across Philadelphia who were looking to learn the trades. Everything from wallpapering to plumbing, auto mechanics, culinary arts, cosmetics….the list goes on.
Unfortunately, due to a range of factors, the school suffered deferred maintenance and declined enrollment. In 2013 the school had under 1,000 students enrolled in a facility that had been built for 3,000. They closed off the upper floors of the building and made the decision to close the school and put it up for public auction.
That was a decision that impacted 32 schools in Philadelphia. They put 32 schools up for public auction. This kind of follows a similar narrative right now across the country. In Chicago they’ve closed over 55 schools. In Detroit they’ve closed over 120 schools. Unfortunately, because of either population shifts, changes in career paths, or other reasons, many of these kinds of original schools have closed. It’s really hard because schools are meant to be the cornerstones of our community. They are usually built to have a real physical presence; built to kind of show success. Usually in their architecture they are located on prominent corners of residential neighborhoods. There's a lot of physical, social, and emotional challenges when a school closes.
For us it was not about necessarily telling all of the backstory, that's not really our story to tell. I didn’t go to BOK. I think that our goal is to allow people who did go to BOK to feel comfortable coming back to the space and sharing their story with us.
It's refreshing to hear that perspective. Too many projects and developers try to capitalize off a history that isn't necessarily there's. It always comes across inauthentic.
We try as best as we can to stay away from the school cliche. We were being pushed in that direction by people in the beginning. Which is kind of acknowledging the challenges and the layers that comes with the school closing, but also moving on and accepting some of the new opportunities created within its structure to provide meaningful jobs and employment for local residents, which is really key to our mission.
A lot of pieces of the building have been reused in various ways. Can you talk a little about how you consciously display these pieces through the re-purposing of what was left there?
I think that, overall, we are in a building that somebody said isn’t worth much anymore, Our entire goal is to question that value for us. We think that there is a lot of value left in the building, even in the condition we found it. There is a lot that could use a little bit of love, so our job and stewardship is to over time show them love. We have a lot of it.
I think that the other piece of the puzzle is that we did find all of this historic memorabilia. You know - the trophies, the uniforms, the yearbooks. And the question is: how do you kind of show that information when it really isn’t our story to tell? One of the things that we did is, instead of creating a museum, we put these items in our most public space of the building and said: come interact with this, come touch it, come feel it, come open it, come play with that trophy. These are precious objects that really allowed people to learn the history for themselves and hear that story through the voice of people who attended that school.
Can you talk about your process when starting the project? What were some challenges of development and financing the project?
To be honest, we didn’t think that we would get the building. When I found out that we were the highest bidder and that I was not only the youngest bidder but also the only female bidder, I said ‘OMG, I obviously don’t know something that everyone else knows.’ It was actually really terrifying. It wasn’t that fun.
One of the first things that we did was we took a walk around with all the experts. I did a walk with around 25 suits, for lack of a better way of describing it.
Ha! Yep. Perfect descriptor.
You know, an engineer, architect, environmentalist, hvc, electrician, and another person who had renovated an old historic building. We walked into the building and said let us see all the skeletons. Let’s really assess what challenges lie within. To be honest, we saw there were issues, things that would require some really significant amounts of investment. But, as a whole, there wasn’t anything that sent us running in the other direction. We said alright, let’s do this. It started with talking to people about our vision. Honestly, we had a hard time.
We were talking to banks and they were asking us: ‘How many pre signed leases do you have? How many credit tenants have you attracted? Who’s going to be your anchor?’
At that point, without a timeline in terms of when the building would open, we definitely couldn’t find any leases. It wasn’t at a point where a credit tenant would have the imagination to move in. We really didn’t have any of those things. I am not a real estate developer, I don’t call myself that, my background is within urban design.
And that’s where the hospitality concept as the anchor came in?
Right. Our first project that we ever did in 2011 was a pop-up cinema which we funded through a bar. We knew that bars were successful. They could make money. So we said: why don’t we do that? That’s something we actually know how to do. And that’s what we did. Within 30 days of owning the building, we opened a bar on the roof. We called it “Le Bok Fin,” which was the name of the culinary classroom at BOK - named after Le Bok Fin, the very high end french restaurant in Philadelphia back in the day. We opened it for 22 nights with plans to just do it as an experiment; as a way to kind of have a conversation with people.
How do you get to know your neighbors in Philadelphia? It’s not usually because you attended a civic association meeting. It’s because you have a drink with them on the stoop. This was our way of opening up our stoop, inviting people in and having conversations with them.
For better or for worse, we were overwhelmed with the success. We had more than 30,000 visitors over 22 nights. There was a line around the corner. Alumni, neighbors, people from other cities and everyone in-between coming to take a look at this bar and the incredible sunset view that we had.
We realized we do have an anchor tenant: it’s a bar. The bar is now open and it typically does about 75,000 visitors during the summer season. It’s a wonderful revenue generator for the building, but also just a great space for tenants, neighbors, and residents of the city to come to South Philadelphia and experience something different.
Yeah it’s interesting to hear you say that. The ILC community is obviously focused a lot on hotels and we often talk about the rise of the importance of a great F&B component. That’s not just for visitors, but to bring in the locals, too.
We always say that people are particularly willing to travel for unique experiences. You might hear of a great art installation or an interesting gallery or a great shop. It’s really hard for people to get up and go to those places. But having a drink in an unique setting is something that people are actually willing to take an adventure for.
Exactly. On that note, what kinds of community engagement did you have from the start? Any push-back?
We took a non- traditional approach to community engagement in addition to the traditional channels. Typically, when you buy a building you meet with the civic association and present a part about who you are and what to expect. We did that and continue to do that. That’s great. However, we believe that there is a certain segment of the population that can’t come out on a Tuesday night between 7:00 - 8:00pm. It’s certainly not reflective of our entire neighborhood.
So, we did everything from just leaving garage doors open and putting our first office right in that garage so that people would wander in and talk to us or at least just see us, in case they didn’t feel comfortable just walking in. We set up booths on the corner and asked people what they would want to see. Always offered free coffee.
Another part of the puzzle was the dog park which was a way of saying ‘come and visit!’ It already existed to an extent and was the perfect opportunity for people to say, “I haven’t seen a dog park at the school before, maybe that isn’t a school anymore.”
At the beginning of the project, there was a lot of push back from the larger Philadelphia community. Really it was around the trauma associated with the closed school. We had some people who were really upset, particularly when the bar first opened. The idea that a bar would open on top of a closed school we understood is a very challenging situation. No one wants a school to close in their neighborhood. It doesn’t represent us well as a society for our future generations. Over time, we haven’t really heard that critique. I think that we have demonstrated that the bar is a piece of the puzzle but it's certainly not the whole. There’s a lot of other things happening here.
You currently have a wide range of tenants using the space. How many tenants do you currently have and what types of companies ingabit the former classrooms?
Currently we have 177 tenants over a really wide range of different types of businesses and people. We have everything such as: glass blowers, a tattoo parlor, a daycare, a furniture designer, a wholesale bakery, esl classes, jewelry designers, photographers, a cosmetic tattoo studio, a hair salon, all natural hair care products, and a hard seltzer company. The list can just go on and on. For us, it was really important that this wasn’t just a stage for artists, wasn’t just a stage for entrepreneurs, wasn’t just a stage for community businesses, or wasn’t just a stage for non- profits. But the idea that all these businesses can and should interstock, they should overlap, they should all work together.
What all those people are looking for is a sense of community. And that is what we are trying to develop in the building by creating a space for it. We try not to be heavy handed about that. Our role is really to create and talk about the structure and the shell in a place that offers positivity and a place for things to organically exist. Our best role is to actually get out of the way.
What’s next for Bok?
We’ve got two floors of the building that are unfinished. We are still working on those. One will have an events space attached to it which we are very excited about. We accidentally got involved in the wedding business a few years ago when our door was knocked down by a local bride looking for something a little bit different. Now, we're creating a space just for that business which I’m really excited about.
We have two roofs off of the seventh floor that are actually larger than BOK live. One will become an events space and the other one will make a great community roof. We are really excited about those. I think they are going to be pretty special. We are looking forward to those coming online hopefully by the end of 2020, which is really ambitious.
Any suggestions of small shops or restaurants our attendees should check out in the neighborhood?
South Philadelphia Barbacoa is down the block. If you’re going to get a cheesesteak go to South Philly Barbacoa. They also have an incredible lamb taco. They open super early in the morning, just by getting there really early you can get the half kilo of lamb. The lamb is really good. It is by far my favorite. I highly, highly recommend. She is an amazing chef. I think she’s been on top chef, so it’s not just some hole in the wall.
I would also recommend No0rd, by John Carl. He has a dutch restaurant on Passyunk Avenue right by the singing fountain. He’s just an all star of hospitality and makes you feel welcome from the second you walk in the door.
Fountain Porter is one of our favorite bars around the corner. It has the best burger in the city, in my opinion, which is only $5. A super interesting wine list, too. They play great vinyls, super casual, but kind of just the closest thing to a pub I’ve been able to find within Philadelphia.
The Irwin at BOK is obviously a favorite of mine. That’s upstairs on the eighth floor of the building, open Tuesday through Sunday, offering great classic cocktails, with middle eastern/ turkish inspired food. The monty is an absolute favorite. I probably could eat a monty and a manhattan everyday of the week if given the option.
One of our tenants just opened a shop level at 6th and Bainbridge street which is fantastic if you’re looking for Philadelphia made clothing. They’re a small fashion brand and everything is handmade. They make everything in-house on a 50 foot screen printing table. They also have some other great Philadelphia designers in their shop and we are so proud of them for opening up their first retail store.
We are excited to bring the ILC community there on April 20.
Thank you! I'm looking forward to it.