Will schools targeted for closure remain vacant?

CHICAGO- Urban school systems across the country have closed hundreds of schools and attendees at the American Planning Association’s national planning conference, held here from April 13-17, say officials will find it difficult to dispose of or repurpose the properties.

“The challenge of finding new functions for these buildings is daunting,” says Emily Dowdall, a senior associate with the Pew Charitable Trusts, which studied the experiences of twelve cities and presented the results at the conference. Many of the school buildings are old, hard to maintain and located in troubled neighborhoods. And the interior spaces, with classrooms, gymnasiums and cafeterias, often can’t meet the needs of many businesses and nonprofits. The recent decision by the Chicago Public Schools to close 54 additional schools, mostly on the South and West Sides, means the city will now struggle to find other uses for a vast amount of such real estate.  

“It’s really focused national attention on this issue,” Dowdall adds. Pew studied what was done in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Tulsa, Washington and Chicago, not including the recent closure announcements. Officials in these cities managed to sell, lease or reuse 267 schools, researchers found. But more than 300 remain unused. Leaving such large structures vacant can create eyesores that further bring down already-struggling neighborhoods.

One statistic from the Pew study should trouble Chicago officials. Of the repurposed schools, 42 percent became charter schools. But since many Chicago residents oppose turning neighborhood schools into charters, CPS officials say they will restrict such use. And sale prices for most closed schools have been between $200,000 and $1 million, well below expectations, Dowdall says. In Cincinnati, 11 buildings and one vacant parcel were recently auctioned off for only $3.5 million.

Shannon Jaax, the director of the Kansas City Public Schools Repurposing Initiative, which has led efforts to redevelop 30 school properties in Kansas City by forming public-private partnerships and converting schools into affordable housing, community centers and other uses, says “school districts are not always well-equipped to deal with real estate.”

“We found that most districts don’t set clear goals,” says Dowdall, such as choosing whether to get the highest sale prices possible or reserving the buildings for community organizations or nonprofits. “There are still hundreds of buildings empty and there will be many more down the line.”  

The Pew study can be accessed here.