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How local real estate developers are giving new life to some of Detroit's shuttered schools

The Leland Lofts, formerly the Nellie Leland School for the Blind

Two-tiered loft living in the Leland Lofts

A freshly-sealed floor at St. Vincent

A lounge area underneath a staircase at St. Vincent


In many Detroit neighborhoods, the presence of an abandoned school is a sad reality. Because of declining enrollment and chronic deficits, Detroit Public Schools (DPS) has closed two-thirds of its school buildings over the past decade. Two dozen more closures are scheduled between now and 2019. Many of the city's parochial schools, too, have suffered the same fate.
 
DPS is currently under the authority of a state-appointed emergency manager, who is tasked with restructuring the finances of the beleaguered system, as well as maintaining its many buildings -- both occupied and vacant -- and the resources required to protect vacant schools from scrappers and vandals are thin. The bluntest solution -- besides just letting vacant buildings fall into disrepair -- is demolition.
 
But many of these buildings, because of their architectural significance and place within the fabric of neighborhoods, are worthy of preservation, and some Detroit developers are finding opportunity -- and potential profits -- in the adaptive reuse of closed schools. (Some non-Detroit developers are catching on, too, as evinced by the recent purchase of the vacant Highland Park High School building by Brooklyn art space Galapagos.)
 
Joel LandyJoel Landy, president of Cass Avenue Development, has had a lot of experience adapting schools. "I'm, unfortunately, the city's leading developer of schools," he says with a tinge of self-deprecation. Landy owns two former school buildings: the Burton International School in the Cass Corridor and the Nellie Leyland School for the Blind in Lafayette Park. The former now rents space to art studios, a movie theater (Cinema Detroit), and, most recently, a Montessori school. The latter was redeveloped into 32 custom lofts, all but six of which are tenant-owned.
 
Many of Detroit's schools are structures worthy of redevelopment, irrespective of preservationist concerns. "They really are brilliantly designed," says Landy. "These buildings were constructed with reinforced concrete and have a high fire rating. I can turn off the heat in dead of winter it'll practically stay the same temperature for a week."
 
Saint Vincent Corktown, a former Catholic middle school on 14th Street, will soon open its doors and offer rental space to freelancers, startups, and medium-sized businesses. According to owner Ryan Schirmang, St. Vincent was built in 1967 and served as a school for decades, eventually becoming a Latino community center in the early 2000s before it was abandoned in 2006.
 
Like Landy, Schirmang says the building's already-present assets were a major incentive to purchase it. "It's a stout building. It's got good bones." He goes on to list Saint Vincent's assets: clerestory windows that enhance light disbursement, pleasing cross-shaped symmetry, and thick walls that maintain a steady internal temperature. "It's clear a lot of sustainable thinking went into the original design," he says.

St. Vincent in Corktown
 
Landy, in particular, has paved the path for future developers interested in rehabbing a closed school. He's turned his successful ventures into lessons about how to take advantage of tax incentives, secure the building from trespassers, and get to solvency.
 
There may be a clear path, but the major deterrent to developers is the size of many schools. "These buildings cost a lot in property taxes and operating expenses," says Landy. "But, there are various tools out there to make it more affordable."
 
Many Detroit schools have been designated as historic structures on the National Register of Historic Places, widening the scope of potential funding through tax incentives. For example, the Federal Historic Tax Credit provides 20 percent of the funding necessary for rehabilitation, and the Historic Preservation Fund awards grants annually for the development of historically-significant properties.
 
School lockers converted to house a meterAccording to Landy, developers need to see the buildings themselves as worthy investments. Ownership and stabilization are the crucial matters -- adaptation will occur in dialogues with community members and other interested tenants. "Appraisers and banks think they're one-use buildings," he says, "but I don't look at them like that. It's just space. And I try and use every square inch of them."
 
Landy originally intended Leland Lofts as a charter school (he actually owns another former public school on Jefferson Avenue that now houses a charter) and owned the Burton School for years before he could accumulate enough capital to renovate it.

Detroit Wood Type Co. in St. Vincent
 
Schirmang, too, says that he didn't think St. Vincent Corktown would be an office building when he purchased it. (And the former school isn't becoming a typical office building, either. St. Vincent's first tenants include Detroit Wood Type Co., a maker of wood type for letterpress printers, and Offworld Arcade, a classic arcade featuring vintage video games at monthly pop-ups.)
 
"A lot of great structures in this city should be viewed with that kind of open mind," Schirmang says. "We need to save them because once a building's gone it's gone. And they don't build them like they used to."

Ryan Schirmang
 
Nicole Pitts has a similar mindset in how she's planning the Cooley High Reuse Project. Pitts and husband LaMar Williams are bidding for Cooley High School, a 322,000-square-foot Spanish Renaissance masterpiece on the northeast side of Detroit that closed in 2010.
 
"When I first saw Cooley," says Pitts, who moved to Detroit from San Diego 23 years ago, "I was awestruck. There aren't many schools on the national registry that look like it."
 
While Pitts and Williams have ideas for the building that would incorporate already existing amenities like the gym, auditorium, and kitchen, for them the business will grow out of the building itself.
 
"We live and are settled here," says Pitts. "We've worked for the past two and half years to establish a foundation. This not just some money-making enterprise -- it's truly for the members of our community."
 
Pitts admits that even if they win the bid, there's a number of obstacles to overcome, from clearing the building of asbestos and lead to securing investors for the estimated $20 million in renovation costs. But she is undeterred. "There's a clear way," says Pitts, who consulted with Landy. "It's been done before."
 
Pitts and Landy praise Detroit Public Schools Office of Real Estate, which is managed by Tammy Deane. Despite dealing with financial pressures to unload buildings and being understaffed and under-budgeted, Detroit Public Schools works with developers to help them maximize financial incentives and runs a helpful website that includes buyers' guides and up-to-date listings of properties for sale.
 
Landy also says Detroit Public Schools has been fair in their asking prices. "DPS doesn't have to sell a property at market rate if it has a greater purpose for the community," he notes.
 
These developers all agree that there is indeed a "greater purpose" for vacant schools than dilapidation and the wrecking ball. They represent some of society's greatest ideals, are often important community anchors, and, because of their strong associations to the past, have emotional value to alumni and residents.
 
"Schools were the center of every community," says Landy. "They really are valuable places -- our built in environment influences us tremendously."
 
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Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.
 
All photos by Marvin Shaouni

Read more articles by Aaron Mondry.

Aaron Mondry is the managing editor of Model D and a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.
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