By: Renee Kuhlman
It’s hard to figure out a new use for just one historic building, but what if you were faced with finding new uses for 8, 25, or even… gasp…124 buildings?
That’s the situation faced by the Tulsa, Pittsburgh, and Detroit school districts, according to a February 2013 report from The Pew Charitable Trusts. Its report, Shuttered Public Schools: The Struggle to Bring Old Buildings New Life, looks at decommissioned schools in these and nine other major cities to see what happened to the buildings themselves.
I was lucky enough to hear one of the authors, Emily Dowdall, of Pew’s Philadelphia research initiative, give a preview of their findings at the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference in February. As author of Helping Johnny Walk to School, I was aware of schools closing in major cities, but her presentation, which showed the abandonment of one glorious historic building after another, was sobering. I learned that the typical school being shuttered is more than 60 years old, larger than 50,000 square feet, and located in a residential neighborhood. In Philadelphia, the average age was 91 years.
The situations Dowdall described were different from what I’d experienced—where walkable, neighborhood schools were closed in favor of a sprawling campus outside the town’s boundaries. Instead, these 12 school districts closed these hundreds of schools for other reasons:
- declining enrollments as the populations fell in the cities
- dwindling revenues leading to tight budgets
- deteriorating facilities due to lack of maintenance (again a monetary problem), and
- the explosive growth of alternatives such as charter schools.
These vacant schools are now up for sale (or lease in some cases) as school districts try to divest themselves of surplus property and find new ways to raise revenue.
Researchers looked at the 267 properties that the 12 districts have sold, leased, or reused since 2005 in the hopes of providing “best practices” for the other 301 unused sites owned by these 12 districts that were still on the market.
Projected Revenue Isn't Being Realized
Although the districts hope the sale or lease of these closed schools will help alleviate their budget woes, the buildings frequently fail to bring in projected revenues. Already located in neighborhoods where residents have left, many of these facilities are in poor shape due to lack of maintenance. Given that the districts have to also secure the closed properties and pay for insurance, the operating savings is typically less than $1 million per school.
Charter Schools Are Biggest User
Charter schools are both a blessing and a curse for the districts. So far, 42 percent of the school facilities have been transferred to charter schools. (The next highest category of reuse was “governments/nonprofits” at 22 percent)
However, the increased growth in charters means fewer students are enrolled in the public school system, which in turn, leads to even more empty seats. For this reason, some districts are banning the use of the shuttered buildings as schools for up to 40 years. Other cities are taking the opposite approach and encouraging charter schools to reuse these buildings by providing critical financing for renovation. In all instances, they are struggling with whether or not new charter schools are the best use for these buildings.
Hanging A "For Sale" Sign Isn't Enough
Because they are often located within residential neighborhoods and have complicated interiors thanks to additions over the years, the disposition of these schools requires creative thinking and marketing. In Kansas City, the district hired a “repurposer” to help speed the process and ensure public participation. This innovative approach helps build relationships between developers, neighbors, and the school district. Bringing in outside help is critical because school districts do not have the expertise to market real estate.
I was glad to learn that historic tax credits, often combined with low-income housing tax credits, were playing a crucial role in making school reuse possible. While charter schools were the largest category of reuse, 10% of the closed schools were used to create new housing.
Schools anchor their local neighborhoods, and, as this report makes clear, they need effective policy, an engaged public, and creative ideas to encourage their reuse. School buildings can and should be reused, and preservationists will find this report extremely valuable as they promote school reuse in their communities.
Want More Resources On Historic Schools? Visit Preservation Leadership Forum.
Renee Kuhlman, author of Helping Johnny Walk to School.