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Friday, June 18, 2010

Old Schools, New Opportunities

I love to be able to write about exciting opportunities! I'm usually a glass half-full type of person, but this is a glass overflowing. School districts are closing schools for various reasons. But in Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City one of the reasons, if not THE reason for closing schools, is the declining urban population. Disinvested neighborhoods have led to population decline, which leads to too many school buildings.

Kansas City, MO is embarking on an ambitious plan to "repurpose" about 25 just closed schools along with a backlog inventory of at least 10 more. People already are saying - well who would want these buildings? And some school board members are whispering that many of these buildings will continue to languish and will never be repurposed. Granted, some of the buildings, especially those in the backlog inventory, are in terrible shape and need extensive repairs or just need to be torn down. Because they are old buildings, any demolition will require environmental remediation. Someone suggested urban farms could sprout - well, yes, but only if you spend a bundle to remediate the soil lest you grow toxic crops. Sigh.

But the glass remains full to overflowing. Having 20-30 institutional buildings come on the market at the same time represents an unprecedented urban opportunity for investment and revitalization of neighborhood anchor buildings. When individual buildings are repurposed it is a victory for adaptive reuse, preservation, and the immediate block faces. But it probably won't do much for the neighborhood, let alone the area. Because Kansas City has been steadily losing population in its urban core and many of the available school buildings are in that urban core, there is the potential to revitalize the entire area through building reuse.

The typical reuses have already been raised - apartments, condos, senior living, assisted living, community centers, and social service sites.

I suggested in a presentation to the school board that they think more about vision and criteria than blueprints and specific uses. Creating social enterprise opportunities to serve the residents of these neighborhoods is the best example I have. This could be an extraordinary opportunity to marry community development, economic revitalization, and social enterprise.

I published my presentation on Scribd. You can link to it here.

Ideas? Reactions? What would you do with 30 closed school buildings? What is the most important criteria for you in disposing of them?