It was a tearful, dramatic day five years ago, when the school board of Kansas City Public Schools decided to close 21 buildings in order to adjust to a shrinking student population. That was in addition to nine previously closed schools, leaving the district with 30 surplus buildings.
Kansas City is not the only district doing this around the country ... Detroit, Philadelphia and Chicago all closed large numbers of school buildings in recent years. But in the wake of the school closures, Kansas City developed what was considered a pioneering program, asking communities to be part of the process of determining what would happen to the empty buildings.
Four years after the initiative began nine schools have been sold, three have been demolished, one is being leased and one was reclaimed for future use by the district. That leaves 16 schools still for sale. One of those properties is Blenheim, a massive 90-year-old school located at Prospect Avenue and Gregory Boulevard.
Shannon Jaax, the director of the repurposing initiative, gave me a tour of the Blenheim. A she unlocks the heavy metal doors, she releases a seal of stale cold air. As we walk the halls our steps echo over the linoleum tile. Windows are boarded up with plywood and gray paint peels from the walls, but the space still holds a lively energy. Of all the schools, Jaax has brought me here to show me an example of a property that she says holds potential.
“This building as a really great layout” Jaax explains. “It’s of a nice size, where when you’re looking at a residential development, you can get enough units in here to make the project work, but there’s still challenges.”
There are four main factors that weigh in on the viability of repurposing an old school: condition, location, layout and size.
Blenheim has managed to stay in good condition — there’s been relatively little vandalism. It’s also in a good location because there are plenty of bus lines and other commercial properties nearby. Still, the building hasn’t sold. Two different developers have submitted plans for repurposing the school, but they fell through because of funding shortages.
Repurposing with a purpose
School districts don’t often act as realtors, but in many cities across the country, massive school closures have forced districts to recycle their shuttered properties. In Kansas City, the district spends $1.8 million a year in security and maintenance, but Jaax explains, the objective isn’t to sell them as quickly as possible.
“The school closures were very emotional and hard for parents, families for community members,” she says. “As a district we saw the impact that those closures had and one way of addressing that was to find good viable reuses and give the community a voice as we moved forward.”
Jaax helped pioneer a new model to help determine what becomes of the structures. At the beginning of 2011, she held meetings in each neighborhood with a closed school. Residents were invited to tour the sites and share what they wanted to see done.
As Jaax expected, every neighborhood wanted their school saved, but given the poor condition — or bizarre layout — she knew some schools were more fit to be demolished than repurposed. Many residents also wanted community centers and affordable senior housing, but that meant finding the right developer willing to take on those projects.
Here's a look at the status of all 39 schools that are part of the district's repurposing initiative:
Learning to compromise
The Foutch Brothers, a development company, bought Switzer School on Kansas City's westside a year ago for $450,000. Renovation have finally begun and director Steve Fouch offers to take me inside to see the old school before it’s gutted.
The air is moist and moldy, which Foutch says is from water damage and a failing roof. Parts of the building have been vacant for decades and last year the old library was burned in an arson fire. Foutch estimates it will cost $24 million to convert the school into 114 market rate apartments. That may be a daunting task for some, but Foutch says it’s like putting together a puzzle.
“It takes a lot of design ingenuity to figure out how to turn it from one thing to the next,” he says. “You have to be able to handle all the hazardous materials and the historic guidelines and syndicating tax credits.”
As we’re talking in the school’s main hall, Foutch suddenly goes quiet ... he hears the faint voices of kids who have snuck onto the building. In seconds, he’s on the phone with police asking if they will stop by to scare off his “visitors."
Vandals can cause serious damage to the old schools, and Foutch knows that. He’s repurposed 20 schools in cities and towns throughout the Midwest — it's become his niche in the market. A low purchase price, with the added advantage of historic tax credits make them desirable, but in Kansas City he’s required to share his plans with the local residents before moving forward. Not something every developer is willing to do.
“We have lots of meetings,” says Foutch. “I try and work with them as best I can or other people try and get through to them on what their expectations are and realizing that it’s been here for 20, 25 years vacant."
Some residents expressed that they would have liked more community space and perhaps a smaller parking lot. Foutch says he was open to these suggestions, but at the end of the day his plans have to be financially viable.
“All of their expectations just can’t be met,” he says. “If you want to see it saved you have to give in on a couple things.”
Even empty, these schools still hold sentiment and an identity for a neighborhood, which makes repurposing contentious. Residents in Waldo successfully fought plans that would replace the Bingham school with a Walmart grocery store. In the Historic Northeast, despite a campaign to save the Thacher school, it was recently demolished to create field space for students from North East Middle School.
Getting a second chance
In the Blue Hills neighborhood you’ll find the Cinderella story of school repurposing.
On a Thursday evening at the Mary L. Kelly Center, formerly the Graceland School, the building is packed with visitors. A church has rented out the gym for a conference and on the second floor there’s a performance by an adult line dancing class.
Families watch from the sideline of the spacious dance studio, while the performers — an all female ensemble of retirees — step in unison to 1990s R&B. Dance student Teresa Smith started coming here a year ago when it opened, and remembers when it was an abandoned school, but she’s thrilled that it’s now a community center.
“I look on the website and I see all the things that the kids can do and you know it’s just amazing,” she says. “See coming up in my day we didn’t have anything like this — and it’s free. I’m even taking a computer class here."
The center offers recreational space, summer camp for kids and GED courses. In 2013 the developers, the non-profit The Upper Room, began working closely with the neighborhood to redesign the space and decide what resources they would offer. The result is a community asset, and that’s the goal.
But Graceland came with advantages. The building was in good condition and the developers had access to generous donors.
What to do with Willard Elementary
Just up the street from the Mary L. Kelly Center, on 51st and Garfield, is Willard Elementary. Built in 1924 with a unique Mediterranean style, Willard was closed in 2000. In the years since, vandals have torn the school apart to scavenge copper wire and piping. Many of the roof's ceramic tiles lay shattered on the ground and the walls are marred with graffiti.
A block away, sisters Yolanda and Erica Hall sit on their front porch, enjoying the first day of summer vacation. Both girls agree that the blighted school has become a nuisance for the whole neighborhood.
“I just think it makes our neighborhood look bad,” says Erica. “The neighborhoods down here they usually already have a bad name and when you see big abandoned buildings that aren’t being taken care of it just makes it look worse.”
The state of this school is no secret. According to Shannon Jaax, developers last year walked away from a proposal on the building. The cost to repurpose Willard would outweigh the potential profit. If no use for it can be found, the site will become a candidate for demolition.
A race against time
Jacob Wagner, an Urban Planning professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, has been studying Kansas City’s repurposing efforts since 2007. He knows the effects a school like Willard can have on a neighborhood.
“They can cast a shadow over the neighborhood,” he says. “People feel like it’s bringing down property values and it’s impacting people’s perception of safety.”
Still he says that even these blighted school buildings are more valuable standing than demolished.
“Even after, if you do demolish the building you still have the challenge of managing a massive vacant lot so that’s a whole other problem.”
Wagner explains that because there’s no immediate market for these buildings, the best solution is to do a better job of preserving them for reuse in the future. Of course, that would require more money from the district, and that’s money that's not being spent in the classroom.
So, for Willard and the 15 other schools in the district’s portfolio, it’s a race against time to find the right developers before another building is lost.