PROVO, UTAH - . The Provo City Housing Authority not only saved a historic school from being razed, but also used the property as a catalyst for neighborhood rejuvenation. The housing authority renovated an 1898 building to create the Maeser School Apartments, 31 units affordable to very low income seniors, and then subdivided the surrounding grounds to help bring homeowners back to the block.
Before it closed in 2002, the Maeser School was the oldest operating public school in Utah. It is a significant example of civic architecture with applied Romanesque ornament, a style that was popular in Utah from 1880 to 1890 but of which few examples remain today.
“The school district tried to sell the property to the private sector, but there were no takers,” said Douglas Carlson, executive director of the Provo City Housing Authority. “They were on the verge of tearing the school down—two weeks away from the wrecking ball—when we agreed to purchase the building and the entire city block at their asking price.”
Although that $750,000 price now seems low, Carlson said, “There was so much work that needed to be done to convert the building that it had an appraised value of next to nothing. The per-unit cost for restoration was in the neighborhood of $160,000, which is a lot of money, and our objective was to put very low income seniors in the building.”
To fund the massive restoration and keep future rents low, the developer tapped 14 major funding sources. These included $2.5 million in proceeds from 9 percent state and federal LIHTCs; $1.2 million in proceeds from federal and state historic preservation tax credits; $500,000 in city Community Development Block Grant and HOME loans; a $290,000 permanent loan from Utah CDBG; a $300,000 Utah State Olene Walker Housing Trust Fund loan; a $223,968 grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Seattle’s Affordable Housing Program; and a $50,000 grant from HGTV’s Restore America program. American Express Utah Equity Fund and Washington Mutual Bank served as investors for all the tax credits.
The greatest design challenge involved converting the school’s attic into housing. “We put eight units of housing up there and had to bring natural light to those units. This meant we had to put some dormers and skylights in, which was a very delicate negotiation with the Department of the Interior,” Carlson said.
The housing authority restored many architectural features—including bricked-over windows, 12-foot ceilings, and decorative hallway arches that had been hidden by decades of remodeling—to their original condition. It also recreated period colors and patterns for the interior paint and carpeting, and purchased Victorian furniture for the common areas.
Completed in November 2006 and fully leased up within a month, the development offers 25 one-bedroom and six studio apartments.
However, the housing authority’s restoration work didn’t end there. It set its sights on reviving the historic neighborhood itself, subdividing the school grounds into 12 lots, which were sold to the Rural Housing Development Corp. for development under its mutual self-help housing program.
“The city is working very hard to rejuvenate the neighborhood and bring families back into the older homes, many of which were converted into rentals,” Carlson said. “So we are trying to do our part to re-establish it as a viable, attractive, residential neighborhood.”
Additional project information, as provided in application by the nominator.
Q. Why does the nominated project deserve to be recognized based on the award criteria of this contest?
A. The Provo City Housing Authority (PCHA) initiated a major historic preservation and neighborhood revitalization initiative in the Maeser Neighborhood through its purchase of the historic Maeser Elementary School, located in the heart of Provo, Utah. With this initiative, the PCHA has successfully preserved a very significant and prominent historical landmark in Provo, and adaptively reused the building to provide the community with needed affordable housing for the elderly. By facilitating 12 new homeownership opportunities on the block, the Authority has also helped to revitalize a distressed central city neighborhood.
There are two major elements of the Maeser Block Redevelopment: the rehabilitation and adaptive reuse of the Maeser Elementary School to 31 affordable one-bedroom and studio apartments for seniors; and the 12-lot single-family home subdivision of the surrounding grounds. The PCHA facilitated and sold to the Rural Housing Development Corporation for development under their mutual self-help housing program.
Q. How does this project represent an innovative solution to a specific development challenge?
A. One design challenge the PCHA faced was utilizing the space in the building—including attic space—into the 31 apartment units necessary for a cost-effective projects, while at the same time preserving the historic qualities of the building. Three skylights and three dormer winders were installed on the west and north roofs to provide natural light for third-floor attic-conversion apartments. This conversion was done in compliance with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, and in accordance with state and local historic standards.
A unique solution to funding challenges of the project was the utilization of 13 major funding sources. One of the components was the Federal Home Loan Bank of Seattle’s Affordable Housing Program Grant. This grant not only gave the Maeser School Apartments $223,968 toward rehabilitation of the building, but also funded other central Provo housing programs. The PCHA was the organizer and founding member of a coalition of organizations with common Provo redevelopment goals that also received funding from this source.