Talk about sweet memories. Roughly two-thirds of the tenants in the 71 affordable apartments at the Residences at Wiley H. Bates Heritage Park don't just call the community home -- they call it their alma mater as well. Wiley H. Bates High School sat vacant and boarded up for more than 20 years. But through community efforts and a seasoned adaptive reuse development team, the school was transformed from an eyesore into a residential and cultural milestone on West Street, the tree-lined promenade awash in colonial architecture and historical ambiance that leads visitors to the downtown eateries, bookstores, and museums of Annapolis, Md.
The facelift is an apt one, returning the property to its early 20th century glory as a regional point of historic interest for African-American culture. Originally constructed in 1933 on land donated by its namesake -- a community leader born into slavery who rose to become one of Anne Arundel County's most prosperous residents -- Wiley H. Bates High School was the area's only black institution of higher learning until desegregation in 1966. By 1981, it had fallen into disuse, and was declared surplusby the county board of schools and shuttered.
In that, Wiley H. Bates is not unlike thousands of other vacant schools nationwide that observers say become available to residential developers in regular cycles. "We did a lot of school conversions to multifamily and senior housing back in the late '80s and early '90s," says Gerald Joseph, vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based Community Preservation and Development Corp. (CPDC), the lead developer on the Wiley H. Bates project. "But this is the first one we have done in some time. I think we are in another cycle where this real estate is coming online and available for reuse."
Indeed, Joseph may be right. Dozens of school projects are currently capping off , under construction, near completion, or in the planning stages. And this new wave of adaptations brings with it distinct challenges and opportunities -- especially the need to balance the demands of community stakeholders against the financial rewards of redevelopment.
Understanding the swings in educational real estate isn't easy. While there don't seem to be any hard-and-fast predictors of when and why such properties come online, multifamily players who specialize in the adaptive reuse of schools say municipal demographics and costs -- the amount of classroom space needed by a locality and the ability to fund that space -- plays a key role. Also important are general market trends, especially the cost and availability of urban infill parcelscoupled with a consumer thirst for completed infill product.
"Across the country, you are seeing adaptive reuses of old schools in areas that have become blighted over the years," says Shawn Horwitz, founder and president of Alliant Capital, a Woodland Hills, Calif.- based affordable housing finance and development company that acted as financier on the recently completed Lincoln School Apartments in Pittston, Pa., and is also developing an abandoned school in Kentucky. "In general, the schools are close to the city center, and as those areas start to regentrify and people move back, land opportunities for new construction are extremely limited. Where you have older schools on old pieces of land, you get attractive redevelopment opportunities."
So attractive, in fact, that school-tomultifamily conversions are popular among high-end condo builders, as well as developers of luxury apartments, affordable housing, and seniors facilities. Securing land parcels and opportunities amidst that competition often involves forming successful partnerships with the community groups and municipal agencies that have a stake in the real estate, if not the accompanying development expertise for complex adaptive reuse projects.
At Wiley H. Bates, Anne Arundel County Community Development Services led the development process that -- in addition to Fifth Square's 71 rental units -- also included construction of a Boys and Girls Club and a senior center. "They viewed it as their baby, and we were an agent to help them realize their goal," explains CPDC senior real estate development officer Paul Browne. "They ... had a clear idea of what they imagined that was both noble and complicated: three separate projects that needed to be completed in conjunction to get the historic credits, each of which had different development oversight andutilized two different contractors.
"It was a lot of coordination, but it ended up being very successful," Browne adds. "I don't think any other group of partners could have pulled it off."
Indeed, the project has won numerous awards -- including being named a finalist in the 2006 Best Aff ordable Housing Developments competition by Affordable Housing Finance,Multifamily Executive's sister magazine. At the community's ribbon-cutting ceremony, U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) lauded the multi-stakeholder and cooperation that led to the project's success. "Resources are one thing, but results are another," Mikulski announced at the proceedings. "I fought to put [historic redevelopment] money in the federal checkbook, but without the right people using it, it doesn't mean anything. This group got to work to save this historical building, and [they] did a beautiful job."
THE GREAT DEBATERS
Unfortunately, not all school conversions share such broad-based support -- especially in the immediate wake of closure, students and parents often protest the redevelopment of schools into multifamily residential properties. Case in point: In Washington, D.C., the December 2007 announcement by Mayor Adrian Fenty regarding the closing of 23 schools did not sit well with the community. Although the plan targets $23 million in direct cost savings and puts 75 acres of developable land back online, D.C. Council members -- speaking presumably for their voting constituencies -- voiced ire at the plan, claiming that the relocation of students would be burdensome to families and that the total plan -- including closures of the existing schools as well as upgrades to facilities that will take on new students -- will cost about $110 million.
Winning over such anti-development hardliners can take some patience. In El Barrio -- an Upper West Side slice of Manhattan commonly referred to as Spanish Harlem -- two grass-roots community groups continue to be at odds over the fate of P.S. 109, a neo-Gothic landmark currently slated for redevelopment into affordable rental lofts for artists by Minneapolis- based ArtSpace. Vacant since 1996, P.S. 109 has been a fi gurative battleground between ArtSpace development partner Operation Fightback, an El Barriobased affordable housing preservation group, and The Coalition to Save P.S. 109, which advocates reopening the school.
Despite acknowledging the positive results of Operation Fightback's advocacy in other areas, coalition head Gwen Goodwin still maintains a vocal stance against residential redevelopment of P.S. 109. 'You never give up public school space; you just don't," Goodwin told the New York Post after a 2006 New York City Council award of $1 million in development funds to the ArtSpace team.
ArtSpace project manager and director of international consulting Shawn Patrick McLearen remains upbeat on the future of P.S. 109, despite the coalition's protests. "We are in predevelopment now and getting approvals to move into closing and construction," says McLearen, noting in particular the support of El Barrio City Councilwoman Melissa Mark Viverito. "A lot of attention at the city level has been given to how you can simultaneously retain this beautiful building and address both the housing and cultural infrastructure needs of the community. All of the pieces are starting to line up in that regard."
P.S. 109 aside, most municipalities and neighborhoods look at vacant school buildings with an eye toward a Wiley H. Bates-type transformation. "Typically, a lot of these schools are boarded up and an eyesore in the community," Horwitz says. "We find municipalities and local zoning officials are eager to work with developers to get these deals done and bring housing back to the community and people back to the inner cities."
Even single-family homeowners that traditionally raise a NIMBY stink anytime a multifamily developer comes to the neighborhood are often happy to see the adaptive reuse of neglected school space. "When you have a blighted building that is boarded up, you tend to get less resistance from the single-family homeowners," Horwitz says, "especially if you are improving or restoring the historical architecture and beauty of that building."
In that regard, school transformations are similar to any other type of adaptive reuse, and require the same amount of deferential treatment -- especially when it comes to historic preservation. Likewise, multifamily developers keen on landing a former school for conversion to residential units should remember that with ornate, older buildings, superficial architectural beauty is sometimes only skin deep: Surprises during demolition andreconstruction are the rule, rather than the exception.
"We'd like to think that our schools were pure from a construction and materials standpoint, but many of those that have been sitting around for some time are not," says Tim Fournier, president and CEO of Rochester, N.Y.-based Conifer Real Estate, an affordable housing developer that has completed six school conversions during the past decade. "These are institutional-grade buildings, and depending on age, you can encounter asbestos, lead, weird underground storage tanks, all kinds of things. Also, keep in mind how long the building has been vacant and whether or not it has beenheated during that period."
For most adaptive reuse developers, those issues are acceptable considering the greater architectural and aesthetic payoff s from former schools. Most feature large hallways, exposed stone and brickwork, metal and wood beams supportinghigh ceilings, and giant windows -- all the things that make a building stand out.
"These buildings typically have a lot more character," Horwitz says, adding that design differentiation often can become the deciding factor for residents currently shopping for units. "Done right, they become neat places to live with big, attractive features. In virtually every [multifamily metro market], you are ultimately marketing to a different kind of resident -- one that wants to be closer to the inner city, that wants urban dwelling versus being in the 'burbs. With these projects, you've got a product totally unique and different from most of the available housing stock." For Horwitz and other adaptive reuse developers, that difference often puts school conversionsat the head of the multifamily class.
SIDEBAR: ALMA MATTERS
Multifamily school converters discover what's in a name.
Feeling good about the total sell-out of 22 South Howard, an adaptive reuse of a downtown Baltimore warehouse into 17 luxury condos, Fifth Square Partners president David Berger drove around Charm City in summer 2007 seeking additional real estate opportunities for his New York City-based multifamily development firm.
In the Bolton Hill neighborhood just west of Baltimore's trendy Mt. Vernon corridor, Berger found what he was looking for: an 1880s Quaker stone building with exposed beams, huge windows, wide halls, and room for 51 condo units between 575 square feet and 1,350 square feet and priced from $169,000 to $439,000. The property was also a former school, though Bergercouldn't have cared less.
"I'd love to have a story that says there is something great about the fact that this is a school," Berger says. "But it is simply ... a beautiful historic building in a great neighborhood [and] an opportunity to live in a part of downtown Baltimore that is not dirty and gritty." In marketing the building, formally known as Old Friends School at Bolton Park, Fifth Square even changed the name of the property to Friends at BoltonPark, dropping thescholarly moniker altogether.
As developers ride the current trend of school-to-multifamily conversions, the question of emphasizing the history of their properties is -- like most things in the multifamily arena -- a case-by-case decision. In Salt Lake City, Utah, San Francisco-based investment management firm BlackRock chose to keep the name of the Irving School House when it bought the 580-unit property from Irving, Texas-based North American Properties. The apartment community even has a small museum with pupils' chairs, ateacher's desk, and some historical photos.
Still, BlackRock director Derek Hegelson isn't sure if any of that matters. "Obviously, the exterior facade was maintained for historical purposes, and the name of the property was maintained," Hegelson says. "But it is not like the residents are living in a former school. For the most part, it is just a typical Class A, high-end community with some modest historical elementsincorporated into it."
Foster City, Calif.-based Legacy Partners feels exactly the opposite when it comes to Queen Anne School, its conversion of a Seattle public high school that included keeping chalkboards in the units and retaining original classroom hardwood floors. The community offers studios and one- and two-bedroom condos priced between $300,000 and $1 million. It was also named a finalist in the 2007 National Association of Home Builders Pillars awards competition.
In the end, developer ambivalence on whether to incorporate school specifics into a community might not matter. Though he may not market it, the blueprint and design of the old school at Bolton Park is something that sets Berger's project apart. "Some people get it and love it," Berger says. "Other people don't want old historic brick walls in their unit. There's plenty of generic highrise multifamily product down in the Inner Harbor. They can golive there."