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Vacant schools in Philadelphia a cautionary tale for Chicago

Graffiti crawls up the brick façade of a massive medieval looking building along Lehigh Avenue in North Philadelphia.

“We’re looking at the burned out hulk of the DeBurgos school,”  said Alan Butkovitz, the city controller for Philadelphia. “People were scavaging for metal in there, it was a hangout for drug use, kids were seen running around on the upper floors, the school district was constantly required to come out here and board up windows.”

Butkovitz wanted this vacant building, which some refer to as the old Edison High School, to be demolished five years ago.

But it wasn’t demolished. Instead, a huge fire broke out in 2011. And still the shell of the old school stands, with exposed rusty beams and boarded up windows. It takes up an entire block and towers over the nearby row houses.

“This could’ve burned down the whole neighborhood, all these houses over here,” Butkovitz said. “I wouldn’t want people taking that kind of risk with my house.”

That risk is a different kind of cost that has to be factored in when school districts think about closing buildings, especially in already blighted neighborhoods.

For years, when Chicago closed down a school building, it didn’t sit empty for long.

A WBEZ and Catalyst-Chicago analysis showed most schools closed over the last decade have been filled by new specialty schools or privately run charters.

But this year, Chicago Public Schools officials say they will not hand over buildings to charters or make them into new schools. Instead, they want to do something they’ve never tried before: sell the schools on a large scale. They say that would help shrink their massive budget deficit.

“None of our buildings that will be considered for closure or consolidation will be used for another public school or a charter school. That’s not an option,” CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said last month.

But closing and selling schools isn’t likely to provide the financial windfall district leaders might expect. CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said they do not have projections for building sales because they haven’t decided which schools will ultimately close. A list of 129 schools still eligible for closure w was released last week.

Carroll said they still expect to save between $500,000 and $800,000 in administrative and maintenance costs per closed school. That does not include additional transition costs, like busing children elsewhere and mothballing the buildings.

What to do with shuttered public schools is a dilemma for a lot of cities across the country, including Chicago and Philadelphia. 

According to a report released last week by the Pew Charitable Trusts, 12 urban school districts across the country have a total of 327 unused schools on their books. Chicago has eight of those. The eight buildings are up for sale, but the bidding process has not yet ended, so it’s unclear what, if any, interest there is from developers.

Most of the Chicago schools that were closed quickly found new life as charters or specialty schools.

School leaders in Philadelphia have decided to go with that strategy now—they passed a formal reuse policy in 2011 that gives preference to charters and other non-profit buyers.

The Philadelphia school district has 12 old schools on the market and nine are now in the process of being sold.. The toughest ones to sell sit in some of the most blighted areas of town: North and West Philadelphia.

Pew Researchers say many urban school districts tend to overestimate both how much they save through shuttering schools and how much they’ll make when they sell them.

That’s because schools aren’t exactly prime real estate. They’re built for one purpose—to be schools, not apartments or retail stores or office space.

“There aren’t a lot of other obvious uses for them,” said Larry Eichel, the project director at Pew who led the recent study. “It takes a lot of creativity sometimes to come up with additional uses.”

Eichel said in the 12 cities they studied, there were some interesting re-uses, including a movie theater in Detroit and a Buddhist community center in St. Louis.

He said selling the old schools is almost entirely dependent on the local real estate market, which can vary widely even within a particular city.

Susan Fetterman, the assistant general counsel for the School District of Philadelphia, agreed. She said the process of selling a building takes at least a year.

"These things take time and sometimes time is not your friend with real estate sales," Fetterman said.

According to Eichel, school districts have to move as quickly as possible, because the longer an old school sits vacant, the harder it is to do something useful with it and the less valuable it becomes.

That’s what happened with the old Clemente middle school in Philadelphia. It sold to a local community group for $1, even though the district listed it for $250,000.

The red brick building sat vacant for more than a decade and is in terrible shape. There’s no glass on the windows and scrappers have illegally stripped most of the metal and copper from the pipes inside and out.

The six-story building casts a shadow over the intersection at 5th and Luzerne streets where Rico Richardson is waiting for the bus.

“It’s just an eye sore, nobody really wants it around. Everybody on this block thinks it’s going to fall on them,” Richardson said. “That’s why they got that gate right there.”

Pita Oxholm is the executive director of housing and economic development for Nueva Esperanza, the group that is buying the old school. Oxholm said the cost to repurpose it will be significant.

“There is about a million dollars of asbestos that needs to come out of the building before we can do any kind of rehab to it, so we’re going to pay about a million dollars to take all that asbestos out,” Oxholm said. “And then should we decide to completely demolish the building, which we’re trying to figure out if that’s the right thing to do right now, it would cost us another million dollars.”

Nueva Esperanza operates a charter high school in the Hunting Park area of North Philadelphia, but Oxholm said they are tentatively planning to build low-income housing on the old Clemente site. The project will rely heavily on federal tax credits to break even, Oxholm said.

The cost of vacant buildings isn’t just about dollars and cents.

At a hearing for Germantown High School, which could be closed at the end of the year, community members are already worried about what the school might do to the neighborhood if it becomes vacant.

“Everybody knows what happens when there’s a vacant building,” said Paul Thomas, a graduate of Germantown High. He now lives in the suburbs, but has friends and relatives in the neighborhood.

“Everybody isn’t fortunate enough to just move away,” Thomas said. “Yes the crime will increase but if you lack the resources to move away from the crime, you can’t do anything. It’s like being in quicksand, you want to get out but you can’t.”

In Chicago, most of the schools likely to get closed this year also are in the city’s most at-risk communities—where many people have moved away, public housing has been torn down and there are already lots of vacant properties pockmarked with litter and garbage.

In these places, residents express the same discouragement as many in Philadelphia.  

“We look around and there’s this community here that just stares at an empty school building,” said Lee Marcus, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania who mentors students at a number of public schools in West Philadelphia, including one across from the empty West Philadelphia High School.

“I worry about the message that this sends to the kids that go to school across the street,” Marcus said. “I think it makes kids feel as if their prospects are limited.”

The old West Philadelphia High School just sold for $6 million, partly because of its proximity to Penn. The developer who purchased the building wants to turn the old school into loft apartments, but first has to remove the asbestos. 

Marcus is worried it could still take years before the building sees new life.

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