Repurposed Schools Offer Lessons in 'Ultimate Form of Recycling'

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Repurposed real estate in Detroit, Burton Theater

By Corey Williams

DETROIT -- When it was a high school, the auditorium and gymnasium at the Burton International School thrummed with the sounds of students gathering for assemblies or bouncing balls. These days, film dialogue and soundtracks fill the nearly 100-year-old building, which has found new life as a movie theater. Developer Joel Landy remade the school into the Cass City Cinema at the Burton Theater.

"It had all the seats and a projection booth built in 1924," Landy said (of the building pictured above). "That kind of clinched it." Burton was among dozens of Detroit public schools forced to close in recent years as the district sank into debt and parents sought better education options. Now the city is getting high marks for its efforts to reuse those buildings -- as churches, substances-abuse centers, housing and more. The practice also offers lessons to other districts confronting the same challenges.

"Detroit has more experience with finding new uses because it has had more empty buildings on its hands," said Emily Dowdall, a senior associate with the Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts, a public policy organization that released a report earlier this year on the growing number of vacant schools in a dozen U.S. cities.

Some of the nation's largest school districts have seen their enrollment plummet and budget deficits rise, forcing them to close half-empty buildings and those that are too costly to maintain. Chicago expects to shutter 50 schools and programs before fall classes begin. A reform board in Philadelphia has voted to close 23 schools. "Many districts are now on their second and third round of closings" and are increasingly looking at the practices of other cities, including Detroit, Dowdall said.

The Detroit district has made more than $16 million by selling or leasing closed schools and vacant land. Forty schools have been sold. Another 45 are leased, according to the district. More than 80 schools are listed as available. Between 2000 and 2010, Detroit's population dropped by more than a quarter of a million, to just over 700,000 people. By 2008, public school enrollment had slipped below 100,000 students. It's projected to fall to 40,000 by 2016.

About seven years ago, officials padlocked 35 schools, followed by 29 more in 2009. Of 172 schools that were open in 2010, 100 remain open. Landy bought four old school buildings in Detroit. One is now a charter academy. Another was turned into lofts. A third houses a music school and recording studio.

He bought the old Burton International School building four years ago for about $400,000. Movies are shown on weekends. It also has a Montessori school.

At least one shuttered Detroit school is now used as a church. The former West Side Academy houses substances-abuse programs. Carole Hoste teaches music in one of Landy's buildings. It makes sense for the school district to sell the buildings "if they can get a quick chunk of money," she said. "I don't know why they weren't doing that a long time ago."

Detroit no longer sells to charter schools, which compete for students and state funding. But the city is aggressive in its efforts to sell and lease buildings, said Tammy Deane, a former residential and commercial real estate broker who manages the district's real estate office. Buildings have sold for as little as $5 per square foot. Vacant land has fetched about $100,000 an acre.

"We work with anyone and everyone, and try to be very creative to move properties and help visionary buyers realize their dreams," Deane said. "We want the new owners to move in soon as we move out." That's to deter thieves who target vacant buildings to strip out their electrical wiring and pipes for sale as scrap metal.

Other districts have also had success with school recycling. The Kennedy School in Portland, Ore., was boarded up for years. The lawn wasn't being cut, and the property "just didn't look good," said Thelma Diggs, who was part of a committee that reviewed options for the site's future.

"I wasn't even considering tearing it down," Diggs said. "If you can use all that money to tear it down, why not keep it?" McMenamins, developer of pubs and historic hotels in Oregon and Washington state, got the building from the city at no cost in 1996 and turned it into a 57-room hotel. The company is required to provide 15 years of free meeting room space to a neighborhood association. It also allows neighbors to use the hotel's soaking pool.

"A hotel project is super cool," but it may not fit plans for many school districts or neighborhoods, said Shannon Jaax, director of the Kansas City Public Schools' "repurposing initiative." When that program kicked off in January 2011, the district had 30 empty schools. Six have since been sold and another is under lease with an option to buy. A recent sale, Seven Oaks School, had been closed since 1997 and will be repurposed as affordable senior housing.

"Some school districts have been trying to maximize price," Jaax said. "What we are trying to do is balance the need to be financially responsible, (while) looking at what type of project will be the best fit in the community."

Chicago schools are just beginning the process. The district plans to work with community leaders to determine the best use for closed buildings. "If there is no strong use for the community or for a sister city agency," the district "will explore selling each property to the highest bidder," spokesman Dave Miranda said.

They could also use someone like Detroit's Landy. Not one to throw away anything with value, Landy moved a used pool table into a bathroom at the school-turned-movie house. It sits between urinals and stalls. "Reuse," he said "is the ultimate form of recycling."

See more on repurposing and recycling:
Re-Use Hawaii Recycles Home Demolition Waste for New Homes
Homes Made Mostly From Recycled Materials
Castle Made of Car Parts and Other Junkyard Finds

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Repurposed Schools Offer Lessons in 'Ultimate Form of Recycling'

“Be not simply good,” Thoreau once mused. “Be good for something.” With another Earth Day fresh in our minds, AOL Real Estate has compiled a list of repurposed homes that speak to the heart of sustainable design. Instead of building homes from the ground up, consider some of these breathtaking, eco-friendly designs. From converted churches and grown-up tree houses, to futuristic grain silos and reclaimed war bunkers, the unique homes on our list crisscross the country in search of new life for old haunts. Click through to see the full list.  

Location: Adirondack Mtns, NY

Price: $2.3 million (cash)

Ever wanted to live like a Bond villain? The Atlas F missile base was built during the height of the Cold War, but when the Soviet threat came and went, the field would lay barren for years -- until a pair of entrepreneurial cousins decided to revamp the underground lair. Click on to see the A-bomb-ready interior.

Located in New York's Adirondack State Park, the secrets lurking beneath this 20-acre property are well-hidden by a quaint cabin facade.   

Inside, the home offers scenic views of the natural preserve surrounding it. With Lake Placid nearby and a private air strip on the property, visitors could easily mistake the property for a quiet millionaire's retreat. That is, until they venture down the winding staircase.

The giant pillar in the center of this entertainment room is actually the launch control center tower. The designers maintained many of the original structures from the home's past life as a radiation deflecting, Cold War-era missile silo.

The two level, 2,300 square foot underground portion of the home is built around the launch control center's unique cylindrical design. Pictured to the left is the kitchen, where you and your loved ones can ride out the next nuclear holocaust in total luxury.

Location: Chicago, IL

There's nothing sacrilegious about reclaiming some of Chicago's prettiest real estate - especially when said property was a former house of worship.

This 19th century Lutheran church was previously owned by a print media professor who converted the cathedral into a loft space. 

This venerable home includes 40-foot ceilings, oak staircases and three bedrooms. Best of all, the designers retained the church's bi-level bell tower. 

Location: Portland, Oregon

Price: $225,000

This 1949 Portland sleeper car has been completely remodeled to suit the modern needs of any railway history buff. At 85 feet long (or roughly half the size of a Portland city block, according to the seller), the car is surprisingly spacious. 

At 9 1/2 feet wide with a 10-foot domed ceiling, the interior cabin is perfect for hosting social or business gatherings and beats the heck out of renting downtown office space. There's also a parking space out front, but who needs wheels when you can hook up your sleeper car to a working train engine and cruise the west coast?

Go to sleep in Portland and wake up in Santa Fe in your first class bedroom. And lest you start feeling too disconnected from the outside world, the train car comes equipped with high-speed Internet.

While the property is technically considered "rolling stock" and not real estate (since the track is not part of the deal), living in a train car does have its advantages. No property taxes, for instance.

Location: Olympic Peninsula, WA

Is there anything greener than actually living amongst the trees? Treehouse Workshop, a Washington-based architectural think-tank of sorts for the arboreally inclined, constructed this stunning home in 2005. 

Built in the Swiss Chalet style, this grown-up treehouse features a two-tiered bedroom arrangement that sleeps up to four children-at-heart.

Talk about circle of life. The treehouse comes with its very own wood-burning fireplace. Even the restored leaded glass windows are eco-friendly.

Speak to your inner Peter Pan by venturing off your wooded terrace and into the lush forests of the Olympic Peninsula.

Location: Philadelphia, PA

This former trolley-repair garage may look old-fashioned on the outside, but inside it's an haute-contempo loft residence. After it housed trolleys, it had a second life as a firehouse. We think it's still pretty hot.

The original condition left a lot to be desired--proving once again that repurposing an old building takes a little bit of vision and a lot of elbow grease.

Transformed, the loft shows no signs of the firehouse it once was--except, perhaps, for the stovepipe, which in the right light looks just like a fire pole.

Location: Woodland, Utah
The lavish reimagining of two linked grain silos on the Provo River gives the term "gentleman farner" new meaning. According to the architect, the corrugated-metal cylinders--the larger one only just 27 feet in diameter--are "a cozy home to accommodate a single man and weekend guests."

Crawl into your sleeping pod. You may not have a lot of room to move around, but each "bed in a box" is complete with its own built-in stereo and flat-screen television.

Lounge beside the big picture windows while taking in views of the Provo River. Don't worry if you don't have your slippers--radiant-heated floors keep tootsies toasty.

The sleek galley-style kitchen has a corrugated-metal backsplash and rubber tile floors, appropriate for a former hard-working building.

Don't sit too close to the metal siding, you might get burned. But it's great for holding in the heat during the winter months--as is the propane stove that can be turned on and off over the Internet.

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