Re-using closed schools takes planning, community input

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When Kansas City was faced with the prospect of three dozen empty school buildings, city officials there took the unusual step of lending the district a city planner.

As director of the repurposing initiative, Shannon Jaax said five of about 30 buildings have transformed from schools to affordable housing, senior housing, a charter school and a community organization.

CPS is about to have an even bigger glut of shuttered buildings in its inventory as it plans to close 54 schools. A study released recently from Pew Charitable Trusts found that CPS has 24 empty buildings. CPS had put some of those buildings on the market last summer, but so far none has been sold.

In February, Chief Transformation Officer Todd Babbitz told the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force that one of the district’s key priorities will be building reuse. He said CPS plans to partner with other city agencies and community organizations to serve an urban planning function. He also said CPS plans to collaborate with community action councils, local school councils and other community representatives to determine the best use for facilities.

But since the announcement, little has been said about what CPS plans to do with the vacant buildings. None of the projected savings from closing the schools are from the sale of shuttered buildings.  Until the buildings are sold, CPS officials estimate that they will spend $1 million annually to heat and maintain them.

CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said that CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett meets with elected officials and faith leaders on a regular basis and the issue comes up. “We’ve already started these discussions,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Jaax was in Chicago this past weekend at the American Planning Association conference. She and Emily Dowdall from Pew Trusts gave a talk titled “Transforming Closed Schools into Neighborhood Assets.”

A national problem

Dowdall said that cities across the country are grappling with what to do with closed schools. Right now, the 12 cities studied by Pew (including Chicago) have a combined 267 vacant school buildings. With this year’s closings, at least 100 more will be shuttered.

“Finding new functions for them can be daunting,” Dowdall said. When they have been sold, school districts have often gotten much less for them than original projected.

Dowdall said charter schools are the most likely buyers because they need and can use building features such as cafeterias and gyms. Charters also have access to funding, but Dowdall believes that in some places charter school expansion is plateauing.

Senior housing also is popular. Detroit has found interesting uses for 63 of its former school buildings, but still has 100 sitting vacant. One of them has been turned into a recording studio. 

Among those buildings that have found new purposes, 40 percent had become charter schools, according to the Pew study. However, Byrd-Bennett has said she will not allow any of the schools closed this year to house charters in the future.

If the buildings sit on the market and further deteriorate, they become harder to sell, Dowdall said.

Jaax said Kansas City School District, which serves the city’s urban core, has gone from 70,000 students to 17,000. Over the past decade, the district has closed more than half of the schools and now has more closed schools than open ones.

Community approach

When closing 21 schools in 2010, officials realized that schools are assets to community and set about to take a “community-driven approach.”

“A lot of times, school districts and cities have different boards and there is not much communication,” Jaax said. “We started to hear that closing schools were having an impact on the quality of life in communities.”

In many neighborhoods, schools are the largest buildings and when schools close, it influences how people feel about communities, she said. The first thing Jaax did was have a technical assessment of each school completed, including information about possible reuses.

“We had to spell out what was feasible for each site,” Jaax said.

Jaax said the school district has been careful to make sure the buildings go to the right developer. They even include closing contingencies that require the buyer to have zoning changes made and funding in place before a deal can go through.

“[In the past,] we have had some buildings that we sold and then they sit vacant,” Jaax said. “We want to make sure that the buildings go to a responsible developer who can pull off the project.”

Jaax said one of the problems is that school districts are not well-equipped to deal with real estate.

It is important for school districts to determine their goals for the buildings, Dowdall said. Is it to get the highest sales price, to get ongoing tax revenue or to support the community?