St. Louis looks to sell vacant public schools

ST. LOUIS - For decades, the Eliot School in north city was a place of promise for neighborhood youth. Its halls and classrooms were full of students eager to learn while its grounds provided those same kids a place to play.

But, that is no longer a reality. The Eliot School now sits on the corner of Florissant Street and Carter Avenue vacant. Its windows are busted and some of its bricks are even missing. It's one of 35 public school buildings in St. Louis that currently sit empty. That total is close to one-third of the public school buildings the school system owns in the city.

"Primarily, it's a lack of students," said SLPS Real Estate Director Walker Gaffney, who pointed to the city's population decline as a partial factor behind the closures.

It's Gaffney's job to sell the district's vacant buildings. He said it's a task that brings with it many challenges. One of which is building maintenance.

"An empty building is not only a target for the elements, which is a problem, but also people just wanting to get in and have a hangout place," Gaffney said.

But, he added the district spends more money on keeping up active schools in comparison to closed ones.

"Really not too much is spent on keeping up the closed schools, we spend most of the money on keeping up the active schools," Gaffney said.

He said the school district is looking to sell 22 of the 35 empty schools it owns. The other 13 vacant schools are properties Gaffney said could one day be turned back into schools or are being held off the market so that there's not too much inventory.

The district works to sell those schools with the help of real estate brokers like Development Resource Partners, LLC. That company has a website full of school listings and potential uses for the buildings.

One school currently listed on that site is the Clark School, but it may not be there for long. Gaffney says the Central West End building is now under contract with a developer and could be possibly be converted into senior living. He said that is the fate most vacant school buildings find; they're typically turned into some version of residential living.

The Irving School in Hyde Park is another example. The school was sold by the district to private developers in 2005. Michele Duffe, of ND&S Management, was one of the people responsible for making the Irving School into lofts. Her group also converted seven nearby historic buildings into housing as well. She said the project helped put energy back into that north city neighborhood.

"If the center of your neighborhood has this big blight that is kind of a dead spot, all the residential areas around that dead spot will also continue to deteriorate," Duffe said.

The total project cost around $19 million. It was financed through federal and state historic tax credits and federal and state low-income tax credits. Duffe said without those tax credit, the project would have been more expensive and the rent for apartments in the building likely higher. But, she worries the political climate in Jefferson City could soon make it harder to finance similar redevelopment plans.

"Probably, this project, in this current environment in Jefferson City would not happen," Duffe said. "They do not want to see project come into the Missouri Development Housing Corporation that have layered the historic with the low income tax credits."

Many of St. Louis' schools were the brainchild of famed local architect William B. Ittner; their structures and brickwork tend to stand out. Duffe worries if it becomes harder to get tax credits for redevelopment projects, those buildings could suffer.

"To see them just disintegrate in the neighborhoods is really sad," she said.


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