This story was originally published by The Kansas City Beacon.
Askew Elementary School has been vacant for more than a decade.
The inside shows signs of the nearly 100-year-old building’s age and long disuse. Walls are peeling, debris litters the floor and some classroom ceiling panels have fallen.
To enter the former school for a July 1 building tour, visitors signed waivers accepting responsibility for the risk of injury or death. Several district security officers accompanied the tour and visitors were advised they could leave in case of an allergic reaction to mold.
That didn’t deter several prospective buyers who came to assess whether they could bring the 58,000-square-foot building in eastern Kansas City back to life.
Kenneth Ford, executive director of the Descendant Freedmen Alliance of Kansas City, said he envisioned the space as a Freedmen cultural center. Freedmen refers to people of mixed African and Native American heritage.
“It’s got a lot of potential,” said Ford, who has been touring other school buildings in addition to Askew. “We’re trying to utilize existing properties that are already in the city,” he explained, hoping to turn an “eyesore” into an asset for the community.
If Ford or another buyer is able to revitalize the building, Askew will join the ranks of 20 former KCPS schools that have been transformed under the district’s repurposing plan or have been sold to buyers with specific plans to use them.
They’ve been reimagined as affordable or market-rate housing, co-working spaces, charter schools or mixed-use developments that include retail space.
As the district anticipates another round of closures under its Blueprint 2030 long-term planning process, it’s continuing a strategy that has served it for about a decade, after a “right-sizing” initiative caused a wave of school closures.
The process heavily weighs community input, and KCPS has recently begun to prioritize affordable housing projects.
Here’s how KCPS evaluates project proposals and what it would take to renovate a former school.
Gathering input from the community
Shannon Jaax, the former director of planning and real estate for KCPS who now works on repurposing as a contractor, said KCPS often asks for community feedback when a building goes on the market so potential buyers can have a sense of what plans might gain support.
After it receives one or more proposals, a district committee reviews them and assesses whether they’re viable. The district also holds a public hearing to gather neighborhood input. Jaax said between 20 and 100 people typically attend and others send written feedback.
More recently, the district has also started to establish “benefits agreements” with buyers that detail how they will support the community, such as allowing a neighborhood association to meet in the auditorium or working with KCPS students through internships or career fair visits.
Another recent change is that the district notes on its listings that it will prioritize projects that include affordable housing accessible to students and staff.
Neighbors’ feedback can have a serious impact on whether a project is accepted or whether it first needs adjustments.
Hope City KC, a charitable organization and church based on 24th Street, made an offer on the Askew building in 2017.
According to meeting notes on the KCPS website, the project plan included faith-based substance abuse programs, housing for interns and a food pantry.
It received mixed feedback from neighbors. Some residents asked about security plans and whether the ministry would attract crime to the neighborhood.
As KCPS worked with Hope City to adjust the proposal, the church instead purchased the building it was already renting.
Jaax said KCPS is still open to receiving a revised proposal from Hope City and reached out to everyone who had expressed interest in the past. Lisa Stribling, one of the founders and directors of Hope City, joined the recent Askew building tour.
Successful plans can be heavily informed by neighborhood wishes.
Mark Moberly, partner and director of real estate development for Sunflower Development Group, said that when his organization looked into repurposing the Blenheim school it contacted the Tri-Blenheim Neighborhood Association early in the process. The development group focuses on renovating historic buildings.
Neighbors were reluctant to add affordable housing to the neighborhood, but the building repurposing wasn’t viable as market-rate housing, Moberly said.
Further discussions revealed that neighbors did want somewhere affordable for aging residents to live without leaving the area.
In late 2018, Moberly’s group completed development of the school as Blenheim School Apartments, an affordable senior housing complex.
Moberly said the apartments are doing well and rarely have vacancies, as residents tend to stay for a long time.
“Maybe they’re ready to give up their single-family home and the responsibilities that come with that, but still stay in the neighborhood,” he said. Many tenants are active in local churches or have doctors’ offices and family nearby.
“It’s where they grew up. In fact, we’ve got a resident or two that went to school or taught at the Blenheim Elementary School.”
In most cases, KCPS has been able to find a use for older school buildings.
According to the district’s repurposing page, 20 former schools have been sold while two more are under contract or memorandums of understanding.
Elle Moxley, a KCPS spokesperson, said proceeds from sales go to the district and have typically been used to fund capital projects.
KCPS is either using or holding in reserve five other buildings, while another five were demolished.
Jaax said that of the repurposed buildings, only one is not being used according to the original plan for nonprofit offices and a community center. It was instead sold to a charter school. Also, some projects are not yet complete as buyers sort out funding, adjust plans or work on construction.
Askew is among five buildings the district is currently marketing to prospective buyers. That includes two new sites with bids due in September. The other three, including Askew, have long been on the market and are accepting bids on a first-come, first-served basis.
Challenges and benefits of renovating schools
How much does it cost to buy a school?
Jaax said there’s quite a bit of variation, ranging from about $100,000 to $2 million.
KCPS is working on having the on-the-market schools appraised, but is also willing to work with potential buyers.
“The purchase price is not what’s gonna stop the project from going,” Jaax said. “It’s the cost of renovating one of these buildings. I mean, they are no small undertaking.”
Jaax estimated it costs at least $7 million to renovate a building but could easily reach $10 million or more depending on plans. It’s cheaper to use a building as a school than it is to convert it into apartments, for example.
E.F. “Chip” Walsh is a partner with Sustainable Development Partners, which has repurposed several former KCPS schools, sometimes working with other developers. Walsh also owns and operates development consulting firm Mercier Street.
Sustainable Development Partners turned Swinney Elementary School west of the Country Club Plaza into luxury housing and Westport Middle School into co-working space.
Walsh said it’s currently converting Westport High School into market-rate housing and 20,000 feet of commercial space, with a goal of finishing in the second half of 2023.
He said repurposing school buildings as housing rather than constructing new apartments is more environmentally sustainable.
“You can remove blight, you can put something back on the tax roll … but you’re also taking something that’s not being used, and you’re finding a use for it,” he said.
But sustainable doesn’t necessarily mean cheaper.
Buildings may not be designed for central heating and cooling, and may have hazards such as asbestos and lead paint. Fitting apartments into the existing layout of the building is less efficient and requires more creativity than simply repeating a small number of apartment layouts, as many new buildings do.
“You take what some might perceive as a challenge or a weakness, and you try to make that a characteristic,” Walsh said. “So it adds to what I think of as the quirkiness of the property, but that can increase your costs.”
Financing a repurposing project
Historic and low-income housing tax credits can make up some of the cost difference, but they add their own set of challenges.
When projects rely on historic tax credits, they have to preserve the character of the building.
In the case of the Swinney school, the state wouldn’t rule on whether the project could receive historic tax credits until after developers demolished an addition to reveal whether it had compromised the original architecture, Jaax said.
Moberly, with Sunflower Development Group, said limitations on changing the layout of historic buildings make it hard to put enough apartment units in some buildings.
“We’ll put an apartment on the stage of an auditorium that’s no longer going to be used, or convert the gym into units,” he said. “But for the most part, the number of classrooms drives the unit count and the corridors have to be maintained as-is.”
To make a project viable, there have to be enough apartments to compensate for fixed costs like the building purchase price, utilities for common spaces, maintenance of green spaces and having a staff person present, Moberly said, and developers may need to seek multiple sources of support.
Blenheim, which has 52 units, relied on HOME funds — federal affordable housing grants to state and local governments — through both the Missouri Housing Development Commission and the city of Kansas City in addition to both historic and low-income housing tax credits, he said.
Despite the complicated factors that go into funding a school repurposing project, Moberly said renovating historic buildings was still worthwhile.
“They’re so cool. I mean, we’ve got units with chalkboards,” he said. Some apartment units have original coat lockers used in classrooms and the outside of the school kept its appearance.
Even buildings like Askew that have been tougher to sell still have value, Jaax said.
She said Askew’s rambling layout and its location in a low-traffic residential neighborhood far from bus stops may have deterred buyers.
But she pointed to the building’s unique architecture — a KCPS building profile describes its style as having “gothic elements” — and its multiple entrances that could allow flexibility for different uses.
“That hasn’t been sufficient to get a reuse to move forward yet,” she said. “But, I mean, it’s got good bones. It just needs someone with vision and resources. That’s hard.”
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