CLENDENIN, W.VA. — Built in 1914, the stately school is part of this town, as familiar as the nearby Elk River.
But just as children grow up, towns change and buildings age. The once-proud school sat abandoned for years until recently when it was resurrected as affordable housing for seniors.
In its rebirth, Riverview at Clendenin School provides 18 units of housing and serves as a home for an expanded health clinic, a combination that allows its elderly residents to age in place.
The $5.4 million project is one of several schools to be adapted into affordable housing across the country in the past year. About another dozen, probably many more, are in the works. As more schools are mothballed— 1,822 public schools were closed in 2009-10— the potential for conversions remains strong.
For many communities, these aging buildings pose a huge dilemma. There's intense community pressure to preserve the schools as well as strict rules against demolishing historic buildings. At the same time, it's extremely difficult to find a new use—not to mention the financing—to restore these relics.
In a growing number of cases, affordable housing has emerged as the solution.
These old structures were built to last, and it makes sense to reuse them as housing once their school days are over, according to Holly Wiedemann, president of Lexington, Ky.-based AU Associates, the developer behind Riverview at Clendenin School.
“Schools lend themselves well to housing because they have large windows to create beautiful light-filled spaces with tall ceilings,” she says.
Wiedemann is one of the most experienced at adapting schools and other old buildings. Her firm has converted 10 schools into affordable housing, with two more under construction and another two in predevelopment. “These are places that have a lot of meaning and value to people who live in the communities,” she says. “They went to school there. Their children went to school there. They taught there.”
As a result, it's special when the schools are preserved rather than left to decay.
In Clendenin, a small town of 1,200 people, the renovation “is probably the best thing that's happened in the last 20 years,” says Mayor Robert Ore, whose father attended the school in the 1920s.
It's more than housing, says the 83-year-old mayor. The development provides an economic spark to the community, with the building supplying new housing and the Cabin Creek Health Systems clinic offering good jobs and drawing people from as far as three counties away.
Recent school conversions have involved some of the most significant buildings in their communities.
There's an emotional attachment to the old schools, where generations have gone to class, made friends, and attended Friday night football games. In reusing the buildings, developers and communities keep the history alive.
That's why the Stanislaus Apartments is such a big deal for West Rutland, Vt., a town that used to revolve around the marble industry. Italian, French- Canadian, and Polish families all immigrated to the community to find work in the mid- and late 1800s.
Built in 1924, St. Stanislaus School served the Polish Catholic students. The nuns who taught at Stanislaus lived in the convent next door. Eventually, the once-busy quarries began to shut down as did the school, which sat largely untouched for 30 years after closing in the 1970s. Desks and books were still in the rear classrooms when the Housing Trust of Rutland County acquired the property in 2010.
The nonprofit rehabilitated the buildings into 17 affordable housing units last year. “For there to be life again rounds out that neighborhood feeling,” says Elisabeth Kulas, executive director of the Housing Trust.
When members of the local historical society arranged to take a tour of the new apartments, Kulas expected a handful of people. Instead, when she arrived, 70 people were waiting to see the building.
“With schools, people identify with them as community buildings,” she says. “I hear, ”˜I went to school there. I remember going to kindergarten.' They hate to see the buildings torn down.”
There are three more shuttered schools within a two-mile radius of the Housing Trust office. Kulas is looking at converting one of them into affordable housing.
In Paoli, Ind., the Hoosier Uplands Economic Development Corp. adapted a 1927 school into 24 affordable apartments. The building served as the local high school for decades until it was converted into a middle school.
The school was eventually sold in the mid-1980s and used as a furniture factory. In recent years, the building had become abandoned and run-down, with broken windows and pigeons nesting inside.
“During the open house, there were people walking around and crying because they had graduated from there and thought they would never be back in the building again,” says David Miller, CEO of Hoosier Uplands.
The $6 million project saves a historic building that will remain part of the community forever, he says.
In Waynesboro, Ga., a long-vacant high school reopened last year with 32 apartments for seniors. Photos of the school's Purple Hurricanes football team, which won a state championship in 1957, and other memorabilia decorate the halls.
To create Waynesborough Academy Senior Residences, which utilizes the old spelling of the community, Bridgeland Development and RHA Housing renovated the two-story school and built two new buildings. The old classroom doors have been reconditioned and are where they've always been, this time serving as gateways to each apartment. Inside, the old chalkboards have been preserved, giving the walls a unique touch.
It took a few years to build support for the project because there were differing opinions on what should happen with the school, says Gary Hammond Jr., president of Bridgeland Development in Atlanta.
After holding numerous town hall meetings to hear concerns and explain the merits of creating affordable housing, detractors eventually turned into supporters.
The list goes on. In Davenport, Iowa, the Taylor School, which closed more than 30 years ago, was rehabilitated into seniors housing in 2011 by the Renaissance Realty Group. And, in Baton Rouge, La., the historic Scott Street School, one of the first public schools for African-American children in the state, was recently turned into affordable housing by Gulf Coast Housing Partnership and the Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless.
Looking ahead, more school conversions are in the works around the country. Artspace, a Minneapolis-based developer that creates affordable space for artists and arts organization across the country, is involved in two notable projects.
In New York City, the group is working with El Barrio's Operation Fightback to transform the landmark Public School 109 in East Harlem into a mixed-use project with up to 90 affordable apartments for artists and their families and 10,000 square feet of space for arts organizations.
The five-story, Collegiate Gothic Revival-style building dates back to 1898. The $50 million project will bring the prominent historic building back to life after a 15-year period as a boardedup eyesore. The development team was expecting to close on the financing early this year.
Artspace is also in the early stages of a project that would convert the vast Andrew J. Bell School in New Orleans' Treme neighborhood into artists' live/work space. The school has sat vacant since 2005, a victim of Hurricane Katrina.
In Kansas City, Mo., actor Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation is among those working with Dalmark Development Group to rehab the long-closed Bancroft School into affordable apartments and a community center. The Kansas City Public Schools has approximately 30 closed buildings in its repurposing program, with two other schools that are in the early stages of being explored for affordable or mixed-income housing.
These relics from a bygone era are being adapted into housing for a number of reasons.
“One of the things that we like most about the schools is the location,” says Richard Hayden, executive vice president at Stratford Capital Group in Peabody, Mass. “Typically, these buildings from the turn of the century, the 1900s, have been built in excellent locations, near downtowns or central business districts.”
Stratford has completed about a halfdozen school conversions and has four more in various stages of predevelopment.
It recently finished School Street Residences, a 50-unit development for seniors in Athol, Mass.
Old schools were built in prime locations in or near downtowns so children could easily walk to school. That concept still applies today, allowing seniors and other residents to walk to stores and services, says Dana Totman, president of Avesta Housing in Portland, Maine. The nonprofit is adapting two schools into affordable housing this year to add to the four it has completed.
In a case involving a defunct school that had been built in the 1960s, Avesta was able to tear down the building because it was not historic and use the land to build a new affordable housing development. However, many of the recent examples of school conversions have involved the preservation of landmarks.
Like Wiedemann, other developers also cite the physical advantages of school buildings.
“Classrooms seem to self-define themselves,” says Kulas in Vermont. “It's still easy for a layperson to walk through a school and envision a classroom. Schools have a lot of character. There's something attractive to living in a place with character that wasn't designed for living.”
Wide hallways, wood floors, tall ceilings, large windows, and other historic details are assets that cannot be recreated in new developments.
However, developers caution that school conversions are extremely challenging. Often vacant for decades and dilapidated, the buildings can be in rough shape. Their unique histories also make these structures very idiosyncratic. Each one is different. Developers have stories about walls being found behind other walls and other surprises. That means the costs of rehabilitation can add up to more than expected.
If the buildings are officially designated as historic structures, developers also face tight restrictions on making any significant changes.
Schools are also more than classrooms. They often have offices, gymnasiums, and cafeterias that have to be creatively reused. In many cases, developers have converted gyms and auditoriums into community space and program areas for residents.
However, these areas can present a big challenge, says Greg Handberg of Artspace, the nonprofit firm working on the adaptive reuse of PS 109 in New York and the Bell School in New Orleans. The organization has already completed four school conversions—three into affordable housing and one into a home for a nonprofit organization.
In Duluth, Minn., where Artspace turned a former junior high school into a new place for artists to live and work, the pool and gym were retained by the community as a recreation center. In another case, the auditorium and gym were leased back to the school district.
While the idea of repurposing an old building rings with nostalgia, sentiment only goes so far when it comes to developing affordable housing.
There's a big practical reason why many of the school conversions have taken place, and that is developers have been able to tap into key funding programs aimed at producing affordable housing, most notably low-income housing tax credits (LIHTCs).
This year, the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority and the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency have awarded tax credits to school conversion projects in their states.
“The financing is the critical component,” says Hammond. “You just never could have found alternative financing to convert it into office space.”
And, if a school is a designated historic building, developers might also be able to turn to another funding source—historic rehabilitation tax credits.
LIHTCs, historic credits, and conventional construction and permanent loans have been the main ingredients in the fi- nancing recipe used to adapt schools into housing, according to Stratford's Hayden.
Developers have also creatively utilized other sources, but it's rarely easy. Each funding piece has to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.
In West Virginia, AU Associates assembled a unique package for the $5.4 million Riverview at Clendenin School, including $2.7 million in federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) funds allocated by the state; $1.2 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development; $400,000 in medical stimulus program funds from the Department of Health and Human Services; and $1 million from state and federal historic tax credits. Construction financing was provided by Poca Valley Bank. The school was donated by the Kanawha County Board of Education.
It's the first time that several of the sources have been combined in a single project, according to Wiedemann. It took some extra effort to be able to use the USDA Community Facilities program, which provides funds to public agencies and nonprofits. This financing typically goes to a building owner. In the case of Riverview at Clendenin School, the funds went to the Cabin Creek organization, which is leasing the health clinic space. However, as a nonprofit, Cabin Creek would have been unable to be the owner and utilize other financing, according to Wiedemann.
AU Associates contemplated multiple solutions to this conundrum. Creating a business condominium structure may have allowed for Cabin Creek to own its space, however that would have complicated and even jeopardized the ability to use the historic credits. That meant the team had to obtain special approval from USDA officials to allow a leasehold interest so that AU Associates could use the funds. Specifically, the Office of General Counsel took the step of allowing a leasehold interest to use the Community Facilities funding to make improvements for Cabin Creek. This decision then paved the way to allow the firm to utilize historic tax credits, says Wiedemann.
Other recent school conversions, including the ones in Paoli, Ind., and West Rutland, Vt., utilized NSP funds, which were first authorized in 2008 to help communities hard hit by foreclosures and abandonment.
The Vermont project also got help from a $175,000 Department of Energy grant that Sen. Bernie Sanders was able to procure for a pilot project aimed at reducing carbon emissions.
That allowed the Housing Trust of Rutland County to incorporate several green building products and techniques into the Stanislaus Apartments. The team installed solar panels on the roof at an angle to shield them from view and tripleglazed the side windows. A wood-pellet boiler was also added to help heat the property, with the pellets coming from a mill just five miles away.
Each project's financing package is unique. Together, each of the recent developments provide a lesson for the many school conversions that are in the works.
“Every one of these buildings is a wonderful story,” says Wiedemann. “We are breathing new life into structures that have so much meaning in the communities they are located in.”