Wikimedia Commons

As school districts downsize, they leave behind shuttered buildings. Finding new uses for them can be difficult, to say the least.

Across the United States, cities are "right-sizing" their school districts, closing and combining schools to combat crunched budgets and dwindling student populations. In January, New York announced that it would shutter 17 schools; Philadelphia will close 23 of its 242 schools. Detroit, Chicago, and Washington D.C. also unveiled controversial plans to shrink the number of schools they operate. And that's just this year.

One of the thorniest issues (in what is a veritable forest of mess) is what to do with those school buildings once they're empty. Often, the facilities are in poor shape, with promised renovations put off quasi-indefinitely. Many are located in depressed neighborhoods. And there are only so many developers with the know-how and resources to convert classrooms into condos or a community center.

Then, there are often complex laws that limit who may or may not take over city-owned property. Some cities ban charter schools from moving into empty traditional schools (officials know that moving a new school into an old school can foment frustration with the district); others require time-consuming input from the community. Laws like these can tie school districts' hands and slow re-development.

Washington, D.C., for example, has one of the hottest real estate markets in the country right now, the kind that prompts iconic newspapers like the Washington Post to put their historic downtown office building up for sale. Yet many closed public school campuses, such as the former Shaw Junior High School in one of D.C.'s up-and-coming neighborhoods, have sat empty since the last round of school closures in 2008.

This is thanks in part to a federal law that requires 

the District of Columbia to provide charter schools first dibs on empty school buildings. But few fledgling charter schools can afford the sort of renovations needed at the former Shaw school, and instead D.C. Public Schools has opted for continued mothball status.

It's not unusual for closed schools to sit empty for years at a time. A 2011 Pew Charitable Trusts report estimated that there were 200 vacant public school campuses in six cities — Philadelphia, Detroit, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. — alone.

These empty buildings can be a drag on neighborhoods, acting as magnets for blight and crime. And rather than offering cash-strapped cities any sort of windfall, school districts end up paying for maintenance and security anyway. If a water pipe explodes or a group of kids decide to cover the school's doors in graffiti, it's the district that foots the bill.

•       •       •       •       •

Few cities develop any kind of advance plan for school reuse, fearing the appearance of prioritizing a real estate bottom line over students. But that’s a mistake, says Emily Dowdall, a senior associate with Pew who worked on the 2011 report.* The longer a school sits vacant, the harder it becomes to do, well, anything other than let the building languish as a local eyesore.

"The time window for finding a productive reuse is actually quite small," she says. "The longer you wait, the more dilapidated and unappealing a building becomes. And from the real estate community's perspective, it makes sense to target buildings that will have better options for reuse."

For an example of what that might look like, Dowdall points to Kansas City, Missouri. 

Of the cities Pew studied, the Kansas City School District closed the largest percentage of its schools. In 2010, the district had 39 closed school buildings to contend with. Administrators designed a comprehensive strategy for getting the vacant properties back on track. (Their district website includes an entire section devoted to school building re-purposing.)

They set eight aside for potential future use; another was converted into an administrative building. Then the city school district got to work, conducting a market and technical assessment on each of the remaining 30 buildings. After the assessment, a team made one of four recommendations: sell, lease, demolish, or mothball.

"We had 30 sites; that's 2 million square feet of buildings," says Shannon Jaax, a city planner who spearheads the effort. "There literally aren't enough resources in Kansas City to redevelop all these sites."

Once the district decided to try to sell or lease a school, neighbors and potential investors are invited on tours of the building by district engineers. The engineers highlight the pros and cons of each building.

The district then solicits proposals from potential buyers. Once they have proposals, the district runs several community meetings to ask for input and ideas. “There's really an emotional attachment to these schools," Jaax says. "We wanted to make sure the process acknowledged the input of neighborhoods."

Buyers must also prove that they can afford most of the redevelopment up front. This avoids the all-too-common problem of buyers purchasing a site and then letting it sit vacant for years.

They have managed to sell or lease nine schools this way, Jaax says. And the school district is in the process of identifying ways to convert less desirable sites into assets that still appeal to the community in some way. In some cases, that means the district will decide to demolish the building altogether and put in a community garden or park. In another instance, the district worked with a non-profit to create a community center.

"Schools are assets of a community, they're centers of community," Jaax says. "We want to make sure these sites are a benefit to the neighborhood, versus a blighting incident."

•       •       •       •       •

Kansas City isn't the only place to have found success with school building conversions. In Chicago, one closed school became an Irish American Heritage Center with a library, museum, and regular step dancing performances. In Lansing, Michigan, an elementary school was turned into a hub for technology start-ups; another was converted into a business incubator. The third was reborn as a gym.

Union Square Condos in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

In Grand Rapids, Michigan, an old school district's former life has become part of its selling point. The Union Square Condos advertise themselves as "old school, new cool."

Developer Brad Veneklase says his company was wooed by the tax benefits -- not only was the city offering a good deal for the building, the property was also designated an enterprise zone complete with special tax breaks for residential developers.

"There was a lot of old trim work, entry doors built by the students in shop class; stuff that we saved during renovation," Veneklase says. "We reused it in the design and architecture." There are some old desks incorporated into the new design too, he says. Currently 185 of the 188 units are occupied.

For every success story, though, there's half a dozen derelict public school campuses still waiting on their future. For too many buildings in too many cities, old school is the very opposite of cool -- it's a drag on the school district and the neighborhood.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Emily Dowdall's name.

Top image: The Franklin School, an empty building in DC. Photo courtesy of AgnosticPreacher'sKid/Wikimedia Commons

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Design

    A History of the American Public Library

    A visual exploration of how a critical piece of social infrastructure came to be.

  2. Equity

    Berlin Builds an Arsenal of Ideas to Stage a Housing Revolution

    The proposals might seem radical—from banning huge corporate landlords to freezing rents for five years—but polls show the public is ready for something dramatic.

  3. A photo of a design maquette for the Obama Presidential Center planned for Jackson Park and designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates.

    Why the Case Against the Obama Presidential Center Is So Important

    A judge has ruled that a lawsuit brought by Chicago preservationists can proceed, dealing a blow to Barack Obama's plans to build his library in Jackson Park.

  4. Two men plant a young tree in a lot in Detroit.

    Why Detroit Residents Pushed Back Against Tree-Planting

    Detroiters were refusing city-sponsored “free trees.” A researcher found out the problem: She was the first person to ask them if they wanted them.

  5. a map of the Mayan Train route in Mexico

    Mexico’s ‘Mayan Train’ Is Bound for Controversy

    President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s signature rail project would link cities and tourist sites in the Yucatan with rural areas and rainforests.