The ebb and flow of communities, schooling trends and demand – or lack thereof – for public education space across the country have yielded hundreds of empty school buildings ripe for redevelopment. So what can be done with buildings designed to house students, not tenants?
Two developers have just launched the redevelopment of a shuttered junior high school on Washington, D.C.’s, famed Capitol Hill, reshaping the building as a 162-unit apartment building and making space for 60,000 square feet of retail and restaurants, plus a 163,000 square-foot office building, says the Washington Post.
In Pittsburgh, a high school that sat empty for 20 years has been reincarnated into a 106-unit retirement residence, and a 1930s Darlington, Wisconsin, middle school was converted into multifunctional facility that now houses city hall, police headquarters, senior citizen and daycare centers, and county offices.
Pew Charitable Trusts, in their report “Shuttered Public Schools: The Struggle to Bring Old Buildings New Life,” details unique ways of repurposing old schools to both maximize their real estate potential and establish them as a revenue source. More importantly, the report cites how real estate developers can turn vacant space into financial gain and secure citizen and community buy-in along the way.
The report says that in Detroit, a developer bought a closed public school, leased it to two different charter schools over the past decade and used the revenue to help redevelop three other closed school buildings into housing, offices, a movie theater, and, most recently, recording studios and practice rooms for local musicians.
The Pew report says public engagement is key. The degree to which school districts engage neighbors in determining what to do with the buildings varies from place to place, with most reporting no formal structure or process for collecting input. While public opinion alone cannot make a desired project financially viable, Pew says strong opposition can stop a development from happening.
In Atlanta, a district convened a “repurposing committee” made up of school and city officials and community representatives to lead the conversation of the future of closed schools. Pew reports that potential lessees or buyers present plans to the groups, which vote on the option they prefer, although the vote is not binding on the school board.
In Kansas City, the district organizes site tours, public meetings, and other efforts to ensure that prospective developers interact with the public. Officials there said that getting residents to think about, and sometimes propose, future uses for a former school has garnered community support for specific projects. Developers have incorporated public feedback into their projects, in one case adding a health clinic to a planned senior housing facility at the request of neighbors.
Have you or your company engaged in any adaptive reuse of schools? Sound off in the comments and share your successes.
Kathryn Hamilton, CAE, is Vice President for Marketing and Communications at NAIOP Corporate.