Taking the locks off old schoolhouses -- a new lesson in urban renewal

Closing schools may be one way cut municipal budgets, but instead of just padlocking schoolhouses, Massachusetts state official is advocate "recycling" the buildings -- a move that can actually increase municipal revenues while improving neighborhoods.

Abandoned schools are most adaptable for use as alternative education facilities, headquarters for community agencies, or apartment buildings, Secretary Byron J. Matthews of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Communites and Development (EOCD) told a recent school reuse conference at Brandeis University.

School closings have been a growing problem in the past 10 years, with some older cities approaching a surplus of as much as 40 percent of their school buildings, said Dr. Paul B. Salmon, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

The Massachusetts Building Reuse Code, passed in 1979, is considered the blueprint for the recycling trend. The only law of its kind in the United States, it allows developers to convert old buildings for new uses with a minimum of costly alterations to meet code standards, says Charles DiNezio, executive director of the state Building Code Commission.

Convertions usually add to the tax base for municipalities as the previously unassessed buildings are put on tax rolls, Mr. DiNezio says, adding that the buildings can be used for other public services -- eliminating the cost of new buildings.

Declining elementary-school populations have forced public officials to deal with the problem of closing schools, especially in older Northeastern industrial cities. An added incentive for closing marginally used schools is the need to tighten budgets in light of expected cutbacks in federal aid.

Idle school buildings waste public funds, because they must be maintained and kept secure. The worst action is to leave a closed building "as is," says Jero Nesson, director of EOCD's school reuse project. "Mothballing a building" --boarding it up and providing routine maintenance and security checks -- is a better choice if no immediate use its found, he said.

If the local government wishes to retain control of the property or foresees future reuse as a school, the building could be leased to another government or community agency or to a private educational facility, Mr. Nesson suggests.

Since most schools are located in residential areas, reuse as residences is an excellent policy, EOCD officials say. Through EOCD and the Massachusetts Housing and Finance Agency, schools have been successfully converted to government-subsidized housing for the elderly and families.

Massachusetts developers have led the nation in converting schools to housing -- within and outside the state. One developer, Housing Innovations of Boston, has a "Schoolhouse Project" division within its staff. This division has developed two schools designated as historic sites into units for the elderly and small families.

A recent trend is conversion of school buildings into condominiums. This is especially the case in affluent suburbs and communities where luxury housing is prefer red, says architect John French.

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