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The Struggle To Breathe Life Back Into Empty Schools

Jul 28, 2015
Originally published on July 28, 2015 2:37 pm

Virginia Savage lives in a part of north St. Louis, Mo., that's filled with vacant buildings, including Marshall Elementary. It has been closed for years now, and vines crawl into the building's smashed-out windows. The playground is littered with empty liquor bottles.

Savage went to school at Marshall as a young girl, and now she sees bigger problems beyond all those blemishes: "Drug dealers, drug users, eyesore. That's what I see."

In St. Louis, the student enrollment is one-fourth the size it was in the 1960s. That drop has led the district to close 30 or so schools.

It's the same story across the country in cities like Atlanta, Detroit and Chicago, where district leaders are facing the big question — what to do with all of those empty schools?

Savage volunteers at a neighborhood church that used to be a vacant school, too. So she doesn't just see problems, she also sees potential. "Apartments, room for the homeless, a community center," she says. "There's a lot that can go on with this building."

Empty buildings are difficult to secure, they can attract crime, and they fall apart quickly. So St. Louis Public Schools rounded up a group of volunteer architects, contractors and community health experts to pitch developers and lure investors into doing something with these places.

And because this all boils down to real estate, the first thing to do was throw a bunch of open houses at schools like Eliot Elementary, another stately historic school. It's more than 100 years old and classic St. Louis with an impressive stature, deep red brick and thick, wrought iron.

It probably sounds like a steal at $260,000, but it's also what you might call an ultimate fixer-upper.

The school closed 10 years ago, and inside, insulation is scattered across the floor. The sub-ceiling is down, paint is stripped off the walls, all the copper is out of the building and the alarm system has been ripped out. It looks like the set from a post-apocalyptic film.

"Post-something," says Walker Gaffney, director of real estate for St. Louis Public Schools. "Post-population flight, post-declining enrollment and diminishing resources."

It might seem logical to just tear the place down, but Gaffney says that wouldn't be a good use of money. "The cost of tearing this buildings down is very prohibitive — anywhere from a half million dollars up to a million," Gaffney says. "This was a temple of learning that was built to last hundreds and hundreds of years."

That's learning that many say could continue with one obvious group of potential buyers: charter public schools, which have seen increasing enrollment.

The district used to have a rule against selling empty schools to charters, but that's no longer the case. Yet some in the charter community say St. Louis Public Schools is still rejecting their offers.

Gaffney says there's no unwritten rule against charters and it's all about competitive offers. "Now, is the district going to give buildings away?" Gaffney asks. "No. This is the list price; make me an offer."

So far the district's plan to lure investors has been working. A few deals are in the works to renovate old schools into apartments, offices and artist spaces.

But there's still much more work to be done.

Jessica Eiland is another community member tasked with finding investors. She runs Northside Community Housing Inc., a nonprofit that builds homes in the area around Marshall Elementary in north St. Louis.

And while she acknowledges it can be a huge challenge to breathe life back into these buildings, she also says redeveloping a 50,000-square-foot vacant school like Marshall could have a domino effect.

"It could be the catalyst to get other people thinking, 'You know what, I should invest my resources on this side of the community.' "

Because the last thing any school was meant to do is bring problems into a neighborhood.

Copyright 2015 KWMU-FM. To see more, visit http://www.stlpublicradio.org.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The public school system in St. Louis is dealing with a rapidly shrinking student population. It's not the only system with this problem. People switch to private schools or to charter schools. The question is what to do with all of the empty schools. As Tim Lloyd of St. Louis Public Radio found out, those schools can cause big problems.

TIM LLOYD, BYLINE: And Virginia Savage can tell you all about those problems. She's standing in front of Marshall Elementary in a part of north St. Louis that's filled with vacant properties. This school's been empty for six years, and its once stately facade is now blemished - broken windows, liquor bottles on the playground. But Savage sees something much worse.

VIRGINIA SAVAGE: Drug dealers, drug users, eyesore - that's what I see.

LLOYD: Savage lives around here and volunteers at the neighborhood church that's run out of a school that used to be empty, too. So she doesn't just see problems. She also sees potential.

SAVAGE: Apartments, room for the homeless, community center - it's a lot that can go on with this building.

LLOYD: There are more than 20 empty schools scattered throughout St. Louis. They're difficult to secure. They can attract crime, and they fall apart quickly. So the district rounded up a volunteer group of architects, contractors and community health experts to pitch developers on doing something with these buildings. And because this is, after all, a story about real estate, the first thing on their to-do list was throwing a whole bunch of open houses. I checked out one at Eliot Elementary. Built in 1898, it's classic St. Louis - impressive stature, deep red brick, thick rod iron. But it's what you might call the ultimate fixer-upper.

All right, I am on the fourth floor of the school. And I'm just going to step over a big pile of what looks like maybe was insulation at one point in time. The subceiling is down. Paint is stripped off the walls. All the copper is out of the building. The alarm system's been ripped out. It looks like the set from a post-apocalyptic film.

WALKER GAFFNEY: Post-something - post-population flight, you know, post-declining enrollment and diminishing resources.

LLOYD: That's Walker Gaffney. His job with the district is to sell buildings like Eliot, which is listed at 260 grand.

There's some people who would look at a building like this and say, it causes lots of problems in the neighborhood, why not just tear the thing down?

GAFFNEY: So the cost to the district of tearing these buildings down is very prohibitive - anywhere from a half-million dollars up to a million. This was a temple of learning that was built to last hundreds and hundreds of years.

LLOYD: Learning that many say could continue with one obvious group of potential buyers - charter public schools, which have seen increasing enrollment. There used to be a rule against selling these buildings to charters, but that's no longer the case. Yet some in the charter school community say St. Louis Public Schools is still rejecting their offers. Gaffney says there's no unwritten rule against charters. And the district has some deals in place. Four vacant schools will soon become apartments, offices and artist spaces. Back at Marshall Elementary, I meet up with Jessica Eiland. She runs Northside Community House, Inc. - a nonprofit that builds homes in this part of town.

JESSICA EILAND: It's a huge challenge, I mean, because the cost for bringing this type of building back to life isn't small.

LLOYD: In fact, it can cost millions of dollars. And Eiland's part of a group that's helping the district attract investors. She says redeveloping a school like Marshall could have a domino effect.

EILAND: And it could be just, like, the catalyst to get others to start thinking, you know what, I should also consider investing my resources on this side of the community.

LLOYD: Because the last thing any school was built to do is bring problems into a neighborhood. For NPR News, I'm Tim Lloyd in St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.