It’s a great idea: Find a new use for buildings that no longer are schools.
Great idea. Not easily done.
Across the Kansas City landscape, buildings full of memories, buildings that glued neighborhoods together, no longer house Kansas City Public Schools students. The district, in which enrollment has withered from a peak of about 77,000 to about 25,000, has sold, put on the block or mothballed dozens of buildings.
The luckiest closed schools have a known future. They’re the right size and in the right location and have attracted the right interest for redevelopment.
Click here for an interactive map of 48 Kansas City Public Schools properties, including 31 that are part of the district’s current repurposing program. The highlighted schools are a collection of former district schools that have been sold, or are up for sale, or have been “mothballed” for possible future reuse by the district.
On the city’s West Side, the former former West High/Switzer Elementary school complex is becoming a network of 114 apartments, some of which will rent for more than $2,200 a month. One imaginative unit features a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment with a sunken living room going in where the high school’s swimming pool used to be.
In the city’s urban core, a community center has repopulated the former Graceland Elementary school with an array of after-school programs and public spaces for dance, exercise, computer labs and other uses.
In midtown, the former Westport Middle School is on its way toward becoming “the world’s largest co-working facility,” and its companion Westport High across the street is slated to be a community center for nonprofits, shared workspace, early childhood education and other uses.
At each, buyers stepped forward with the vision, money and public assistance needed. The district has completed sale contracts worth nearly $4.7 million on properties that have changed hands.
But many other school properties remain in limbo, some long predating the district’s current 31-school repurposing program. Some are categorized as “mothballed” by the district. They’re being retained for possible future district use. Indeed, some formerly mothballed buildings have been returned to school use based on fluid district needs.
Among buildings definitely up for sale are a combination of those too big — or too small — for cost-effective redevelopment. Some are bound by property deed restrictions, or they’re in out-of-the-way locations for commercial development.
A few buildings are simply too far gone, victims of fires, break-ins or extensive vandalism. They await demolition. Manchester Elementary in east Kansas City has fallen to the Kansas City Land Bank to raze when money is available. Marlborough Elementary in south Kansas City, despite strong neighborhood support and repeated developer interest, doesn’t yet have a workable reuse plan.
Six school properties — a combination of buildings and vacant land — recently were wrapped up in a package deal to be handed over to the city of Kansas City for reuse as athletic fields or future residential redevelopment.
“The fact is that options are limited, especially on buildings surrounded by single-family homes on all sides,” said Shannon Jaax, the district’s point person for real estate repurposing. “The vast majority of our buildings are in residential-zoned areas; therefore a lot make sense as residential conversions. But among those, what works financially are buildings with about 60,000 square feet.”
That’s above the high end in size of the district’s for-sale elementary schools. Thus, some residential conversion projects require new additions to get the square footage needed for redevelopers to get adequate returns on their investments.
That 60,000-square-foot optimum is less than half the size of the district’s high schools, which pose behemoth redevelopment challenges.
Finding the right combination of size and location for residential conversion isn’t easy. Indeed, the slickest reuse of school buildings is as schools, and several former public schools now operate as charter, parochial or private schools.
Repurposers of most former schools in the district also have to contend with historic preservation — a needed source of financing through tax credits but also a headache in terms of preserving exteriors. That often means avoiding alterations that make sense for apartments but are prohibited by preservation rules.
In addition to requiring a certain kind of development expertise, it’s usually easier to convert schools to housing in locations that can command high enough apartment rental rates to justify the project. Few of the district’s closed schools fit that bill.
“The fact also is that access to low-income housing funding is very competitive, and it doesn’t happen very often,” Jaax notes. “It’s tough.”
Jason Swords, with Sunflower Redevelopment, tackled a low-income conversion at the old Faxon Elementary and agrees: “Public assistance is huge. … Without it, the location, the condition of the school and what you can rent it for would make it difficult to pursue a project.”
John Brown, an architect at Hollis & Miller, a firm specializing in school buildings, says the first reuse consideration is “the bones of the building — are they good for another 30 to 40 years?”
After that, “it depends on the intended use, the location, the zoning and the size,” Brown notes. “Then you pretty much gut the building, redo the heating and cooling systems, the windows, the roof. … It’s a big expense that requires vision and desire.”
Steve Foutch, who is leading the five-building Foutch Brothers transformation of the former West/Switzer buildings, concurs about vision and desire. He adds two other repurposing essentials — experience and deep enough pockets to see ambitious conversions through to the end.