Old schools were built in prime locations in or near downtowns so children could easily walk to school. That concept still applies today, allowing seniors and other residents to walk to stores and services, says Dana Totman, president of Avesta Housing in Portland, Maine. The nonprofit is adapting two schools into affordable housing this year to add to the four it has completed.
AFFORDABLE HOUSING FINANCE • June 2012
For many communities, these aging buildings pose a huge dilemma. There’s intense community pressure to preserve the schools as well as strict rules against demolishing historic buildings. At the same time, it’s extremely difficult to find a new use—not to mention the financing—to restore these relics.
In a growing number of cases, affordable housing has emerged as the solution.
These old structures were built to last, and it makes sense to reuse them as housing once their school days are over, according to Holly Wiedemann, president of Lexington, Ky.-based AU Associates, the developer behind Riverview at Clendenin School.
“Schools lend themselves well to housing because they have large windows to create beautiful light-filled spaces with tall ceilings,” she says.
Wiedemann is one of the most experienced at adapting schools and other old buildings. Her firm has converted 10 schools into affordable housing, with two more under construction and another two in predevelopment. “These are places that have a lot of meaning and value to people who live in the communities,” she says. “They went to school there. Their children went to school there. They taught there.”
As a result, it’s special when the schools are preserved rather than left to decay.
In Clendenin, a small town of 1,200 people, the renovation “is probably the best thing that’s happened in the last 20 years,” says Mayor Robert Ore, whose father attended the school in the 1920s.
It’s more than housing, says the 83-year-old mayor. The development provides an economic spark to the community, with the building supplying new housing and the Cabin Creek Health Systems clinic offering good jobs and drawing people from as far as three counties away.