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After the last bell rings, cities explore options for vacant school buildings

March 2, 2015

Vacant school building in  Wake Forest, North Carolina (Credit Wendy via Flickr)

Vacant school building in  Wake Forest, North Carolina (Credit Wendy via Flickr)

Vacant school building  (Credit Wendy via Flickr)

Urban school districts are seeing schools close due to population declines, the buildings’ age, and other factors. The trend is particularly pronounced in cities that have faced the decline of large industry and subsequent hard times. Elaborate, sometimes multi-structure facilities once cherished as neighborhood centers – built to provide thousands of kids with an education and such necessities as gymnasiums, auditoriums, and other large facilities – become abandoned, fall into disrepair and change from assets to drains on declining district budgets.

As buildings deteriorate, nearby residents are often left to wonder what can, or will, be done, while local leaders grapple with financial, market, and other constraints.

Nationally, of approximately 99,000 schools, 1,929 closed in 2010-11, according to the last count of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. The number has ranged from 1,200 to 2,200 every year since the 2001-02 school year.

The Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania recently proposed a school redevelopment initiative to the Philadelphia School District, as the district prepared to close seven more schools in a city where eight other school buildings are already empty. The report acknowledged that lack of funds and changes in neighborhood demographics may lead Philadelphia to close as many as 50 more schools in the next 10 years.

“The removal of a school from a community can have a drastic effect – especially when left vacant and deteriorating over time,” the report added. Those effects include the spread of blight, an increase in crime and, in Philadelphia, reduction of property values and the loss of millions each year in maintenance costs. According to a recent study, “maintaining a closed school can still cost the School District of Pennsylvania up to $5,000 a month.”[1]

Reworking school buildings often poses a particularly difficult task, since their age, size, condition, and placement in neighborhoods with declining populations may deter private developers from taking an interest in school-based projects.

But the Fels report remained hopeful. If a district can get the community involved, the report concluded, it can revitalize school buildings for new uses and, in turn, help to rehabilitate the surrounding neighborhood. Public interest and private investment can come together to create a future for these buildings, bringing new residents, retail and other positive forces to revive neighborhoods previously in trouble.

South Hills Retirement Residence

South Hills Retirement Residence (Credit: Denmarsh Photography, inc.)

South Hills High School in Pittsburgh, Pa.

 South Hills High School in Pittsburgh’s Mt. Washington neighborhood, for instance, sat vacant and vandalized for more than two decades before the right ingredients came together for its productive reuse.

The hilltop edge of Mt. Washington has spectacular (and expensive) views of downtown across the Monongahela River, but the rest of the neighborhood has experienced population decline and the closing of multiple school buildings.

The high school, says James Eash, former economic development director of the Mt. Washington Community Development Corporation, “was really a rock in the neighborhood for some time, but there’s not a whole lot you can do with these types of buildings.”

“Having that question mark across the street from you for 25 years was tough” for neighbors, says Ken Doyno of Rothschild Doyno Collaborative, one of the firms engaged by the developers to design the school’s eventual reuse – and to devise the plan to bring the community on board. “Sometimes it can spread like a disease. But the neighborhood was remarkably intact. Look at all the houses around the perimeter. There aren’t a lot of missing teeth.”

And, he adds, “Nobody wanted to see it vacant anymore. It was not going to reopen as a high school. The community was ready to let go of its stronger beliefs about restoration. By the time we were involved, the community was at the point of: either something happens or this thing is going away.”

As a stopgap measure, the Pittsburgh Public School board had spent $3.5 million to put a new roof on the school’s primary structure. “That was probably the only reason it was standing,” Doyno says, since vandals had long ago destroyed the plaster and windows. “It was a beautiful masonry shell and it was full of community memories,” he adds. The city school district also had removed all hazardous materials from the structure, leaving it ready for development by 2005.

That’s when the Urban Redevelopment Authority, Pittsburgh’s economic development agency, issued a Request For Proposals to rework the building for senior housing. Five years later, following a lengthy process of gathering financing from several state agencies and elsewhere, the South Hills Retirement Residence opened with 106 apartments – 22 renting at market rate and 84 designed as affordable housing.

Solar Panels at South Hills Retirement Residence

Solar Panels at South Hills Retirement Residence (Credit: Denmarsh Photography, inc.)

It is also now a green building, with a cogeneration plant producing 65 kilowatts of electricity each hour, a photovoltaic solar roof array filling 100 percent of the structure’s hot water needs (including heating), special insulation and other features for sustainability.

After being kickstarted by tax credits from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA) as well as other PHFA funds, the project received money from the Pennsylvania Energy Development Authority, the Pennsylvania Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program and other agencies, as well as a loan from the federal Housing and Urban Development department and money from the URA. The $22.5 million project includes 163,000 square feet of housing and 12,000 square feet of commercial space, offering amenities sought by seniors, and was developed by a.m. Rodriguez Associates, a real estate development company, with architecture firm Thoughtful Balance Inc.

Ken Doyno recalls being recruited by the latter two companies to complete a vision study that would help the local community understand that partial demolition of some of the outbuildings – particularly the large auditorium on one side of the C-shaped main structure, and several below-ground additions inside the C – would be good for the project and the community, since those sections of the high school had not been maintained by the district and had deteriorated beyond repair.

“It really required consensus and some demolition to save the whole,” he said. “Because there’s so much trauma associated with the site in the community, there hadn’t been agreement” for decades in the past. Doyno’s agency held community meetings and met with the school alumni group to build consensus around the senior housing plan. The building now includes a “memory area that reflects the school and its history,” he notes.

South Hills Retirement Residence

South Hills Retirement Residence (Credit: Denmarsh Photography, inc.)

Meeting with the area’s city councilperson and representatives of the mayor were crucial, says James Eash: “With the mayor’s office, with something of this size, we will have a meeting with them fairly early on, letting them know what we have in mind, where we will be looking for funding. In any large project like this, where the capital stack is pulling from a lot of different agencies, typically involves a lot of meetings between a lot of government agencies.”

The CDC had also helped find the right developer. It was critical that Rodriguez saw that community conversation “was a key part of a successful project, not something he had to check off his list.”

Today, Eash calls the project “a pretty big success story … taking a property that was vacant for a very long time and turning it back into something that can be productive for the city.”

Roberto Clemente Middle School in Philadelphia, Pa.

Across the length of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, the nonprofit Nueva Esperanza Housing and Economic Development is also at the other end of a school reuse project and faces a different set of hurdles.

The Roberto Clemente Middle School in North Philly’s Hunting Park neighborhood, a largely Puerto Rican community, was converted from a hosiery factory in 1967, but closed in 1994 when the city built a new Clemente school. For more than a decade it was the Greater Philadelphia Book Bank, a free resource for teachers, but that was shuttered in 2007. The building fell victim to vandals and harbored other criminal activity, such as drugs and prostitution.

In April 2013, Nueva Esperanza – part of the national Esperanza nonprofit whose other branches run schools, immigration aid and other services – bought the property for a dollar from the school district. The nonprofit, with offices near the school since 1999, had already been using a local grant to conduct a community planning process. Working with PZS Architects, it then devised a plan to demolish the 4th through 6th floors of the school and create 38 apartments, with more than 5,000 square feet of retail space and a community room at street level.

“The school district really had no plans for what to do with Roberto Clemente,” says Perfecta Oxholm, Nueva Esperanza’s executive director of economic development. “At the time we were the first nonprofit to acquire a school” from the district.

Today, the group is still in the financing phase, seeking tax credits from the PHFA.

“The major barrier for us is the building itself,” she says – a large property of about 200,000 square feet, for which remediation and partial demolition alone will cost $1 million.

But local buy-in has not been an obstacle, she says, thanks to her group’s frequent attendance at community meetings prior to the project’s announcement. “We have strong community support. We have strong political support from Councilwoman Maria Quiñones.” Quiñones provided formal written support to the school district and potential funders, Oxholm reports.

“We’ve never received any sort of opposition to this,” she says. “We’ve had some concern, and this is not surprising.” When at first the reuse was referred to publicly as a “housing project,” the architect had to assuage community fears. “They heard ‘concentrated poverty’ and all that. But everybody knows that there is a need for affordable housing.”

As a nonprofit, Esperanza can’t issue bonds or finance the project itself, and the pre-design, marketing and grant application work has been expensive. “Unless you can float that or are in a position to pay for this, you need to be careful,” Oxholm says. “We’ve spent $100,000 already and we haven’t touched a brick.” Esperanza won’t seek a developer until it receives PHFA funding, and that may take years of once-yearly applications to accomplish, she admits.

Thus, she advises, “it’s really important to mitigate your excitement for your project and the inevitable excitement in the community, [saying] look, we can’t just go out and issue debt and start construction tomorrow. It’s walking a line and saying Esperanza is here and we are in it for the long term, but it’s not going to happen tomorrow. It’s keeping lines of communication open.”

Credit: Detroit School Garden Collaborative

Model of Kettering Urban Agricultural Campus (Credit: Saundra Little – Architect, AIA, LEED AP, NOMA, NCARB – Centric Design Studio)

Kettering High School in Detroit, Mich.

In Detroit, Betti Wiggins, executive director of the city schools’ Office of School Nutrition, is also in the early stages of the Kettering Urban Agricultural Project. This project will teach urban farming in a former high school on the edge of the city, while using the farm to feed school children.

The number of students in the Detroit Public School system has dropped precipitously over the last ten to fifteen years. According to a recent Associated Press article, “Of 172 schools that were open in 2010, about 100 remain open” and public school enrollment in Detroit is projected to fall to 40,000 by 2016.

In March 2014, the Detroit Public School District offered $5 million in financing for potential developers of closed city schools. It had more than 80 schools and 40 vacant land parcels for sale at the time, but had already gleaned $16 million from the sale and lease of other buildings.

Yet the district had other plans for the former Kettering High School, built in 1964 for 3,000 students, with an Olympic-sized swimming pool and “a beautiful auditorium and gym,” Wiggins says. Plans for its 27 acres include building hoop houses to create longer growing seasons, redeveloping other land for school lunch crops and even building a food-processing plant.

Only the hoop houses are in place so far. The school’s main structure, 90,000 square feet, will remain and be renovated under the Kettering plan at a cost of $2.2 million, while an addition of 135,000 square feet will be demolished.

But Kettering is not an idea out of the blue, Wiggins emphasizes. The Detroit School Garden Collaborative was established in 2009 and is now at more than 50 city schools. The district created Drew Farms on two and a half former school acres, for example, to provide not only hands-on science classes but local, healthy foods for the 50,000 lunches Wiggins’ staff prepares every day. This summer Drew grew 30,000 servings of sweet corn at 20 cents a serving, bringing fresh vegetables to cafeteria tables at 13 cents-per-plate cheaper than buying it. The corn harvest also created jobs at a local processing plant. Turning schools into city farms “is putting dollars back into our city,” Wiggins adds.

That’s why revamping Kettering is such an important plan for a district that once had 300 schools and now has 99, she says. The East Side neighborhood in which it is located used to have working-class homes, industry and small stores. “That community is never coming back,” Wiggins says, but renovation is starting downtown and moving out. Kettering, near a major thoroughfare, is a good spot for this effort. “A lot of thought went into how it could fit into future development plans for the city. We didn’t want to just have a fire sale and sell it off to the highest bidder and get it off our rolls.”

Model of Community Green Space: (Credit: Saundra Little - Architect, AIA, LEED AP, NOMA, NCARB - Centric Design Studio)

Model of Community Green Space: (Credit: Saundra Little – Architect, AIA, LEED AP, NOMA, NCARB – Centric Design Studio)

Jack Martin, the district’s state-appointed emergency manager, further commented in the Associated Press, saying, “No longer are we simply trying to sell our properties to the highest bidder. We are now looking for buyers who, wherever possible, will creatively re-use the land to benefit the neighborhood, or at least demolish the existing structure if it is not viable for rehabilitation.”

Michigan State University’s Extension Program has provided the district with agricultural business management and applied agriculture help, as well as staff training. All the money for this schools-to-farms effort has come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s child nutrition funding, and moving beyond the hoop house and maybe greenhouse stages is still just a plan.

Eventually, she sees the community using the space for local farmers’ markets as well as land for students graduating from Michigan State’s farming program.

“We’re not going to make cars anymore, so what can we do with this piece of land to give our citizens some resources and some skills?” Wiggins concludes. “We’re hopeful we can get enough attention so people can say, ‘Hey, those people at Detroit Public Schools are thinking right.'”

[1] New Life for Old Schools: Philadelphia School Reuse Studio, University of Pennsylvania School of Design – Department of City and Regional Planning (2013), 9.

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