What to do with St. Louis’ empty schools? | St. Louis Public Radio

What to do with St. Louis’ empty schools?

Jul 7, 2015

Virginia Savage can remember being a nervous fourth grader walking into Marshall Elementary for the first time in the Ville neighborhood in north St. Louis.    

“It was a great school to me,” Savage said. “And when it shut down, I was hurt.”

Left vacant for six years, the building now has vines crawling into the broken windows that fill Marshall's once stately facade. Savage lives nearby and sees something much worse than a crumbling building.     

“Drug dealers, drug users, eyesore. That’s what I see,” Savage said.

Virginia Savage stands in front of Marshall Elementary in the Ville neighborhood of north St. Louis. Savage lives nearby and says the vacant school has become a magnet for drug deals.
Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio

But she doesn’t just see the problems, she also sees the potential for this building. The home health care worker and mother of two also carves out time to volunteer just down the road at Bridge of Hope Church, which is run out of a formerly vacant school.  

“Apartments, room for the homeless, a community center,” Savage said. “There’s a lot that can go on with this building.”

St. Louis Public Schools is taking a fresh approach to attracting the type of development that Savage envisions for Marshall. The district is selling 22 out of more than 30 schools that have been left empty by decades of declining enrollment. The longer a school stays empty the more problems it can attract and the deeper it falls into decay.  

Earlier this year St. Louis Public Schools put together the Building Revitalization Collaborative (BRC) to influence developers on projects that could revitalize shuttered schools. Their first order of business was to host a series of open houses, of sorts, at many of its vacant schools.  

During a recent tour of Eliot Elementary in Fairground Park, a handful of urban explorers snapped photos of a massive mural depicting America’s history in flight that’s peeling off the wall. The school takes its name from William Greenleaf Eliot, founder of Washington University, and it has a place on the National Register of Historic Places. Like many of the district’s empty schools, it was designed by William Ittner in the late 19th and early 20th century. Hired by the district to revamp the city’s schools, Ittner drew up plans for 50 schools like Eliot in and around St. Louis with tall windows and open spaces, creating a blueprint for buildings that school systems used across the nation.    

More than 100 years later, insulation is scattered across the floor in one of Eliot’s fourth floor classrooms. The sub-ceiling is down, paint is stripped off the walls, all the copper is out of the building, the alarm system’s been ripped out. In some ways it looks like the set from a post-apocalyptic film.      

“Post something,” said Walker Gaffney, director of real estate for St. Louis Public Schools.  “Post population flight, post declining enrollment and diminishing resources.”

"This was a temple of learning that was built to last hundreds and hundreds of years."-- Walker Gaffney, director of real estate, St. Louis Public Schools.

Even though buildings like Eliot continue to fall into disrepair and attract crime to neighborhoods, Gaffney said demolishing them isn’t a realistic option.  

“The cost of tearing this buildings down is very prohibitive, anywhere where from a half million up to a million dollars,” Gaffney said. “This was a temple of learning that was built to last hundreds and hundreds of years.”

Many say there is one obvious group of potential buyers who would use the buildings to sustain that tradition of learning: Charter schools, which have collectively seen increasing enrollment over the past decade.

New homes for charter schools?

The district used to have a policy of not selling buildings to charter schools. That policy is no longer in place, Gaffney said.  Yet some in the charter school community say the district is still rejecting competitive offers.  

“The district personnel who talk to the charters seem very sincere in their negotiation” said Doug Thaman, who leads the Missouri Charter Public Schools Association. “Unfortunately, beyond that sincerity it doesn’t seem to move forward. There is a good relationship struck between KIPP and St. Louis Public Schools, but it seems to stop at that.”  

The front of Eliot Elementary in the Fairground Park neighborhood. The school closed 10 years ago and has fallen into a deep state of disrepair.
Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio

In February, the district’s Special Administrative Board approved giving charter school operator KIPP access to the empty Pruitt School, located near the long-demolished Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex. The district will spend about $2.2 million to renovate the building and, under the deal, KIPP will reimburse almost all of those costs. In return, test score data from KIPP students will be counted in the district’s accreditation tally.

“We really believe that these vacant buildings can be used for quality education for families and kids,” Thaman said. “There are a number of charter schools over the years that would have been interested in doing that. But, beyond sincere conversation, it never moved forward.”

Superintendent Kelvin Adams said the district is now in the process of reviewing a bid from a single charter operator. Both Adams and Gaffney said there is no unwritten rule against selling vacant schools to charter operators.      

Now, is the district going to give buildings away? No.” Gaffney said. “And, as I say to people, this is the list price, make me an offer.”

Bringing in offers

Prices for empty schools can range from just over $100,000 for the 16,419 square-foot Ashland Branch Elementary in Penrose, to almost $2.4 million for the 235,285 square-foot Cleveland High School in Dutchtown.  

The district has closed four deals recently, which will turn vacant schools into artists spaces, apartments and offices.

  • Euclid School in Fountain Park will become affordable artist housing, studio and performance space.
  • Lafayette School in Soulard will be developed into market rate apartments
  • Shepard School in Marine Villa will be turned into condos and new residential construction
  • Cook School in the West End will become office space.  

Jessica Eiland, president of Northside Community Housing, Inc., says redeveloping a vacant school like Marshall Elementary could attract more investment to neighborhoods like the Ville in north St. Louis.
Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio

To help bring in more offers, Gaffney put together something called the Technical Advisory Committee, or TAC team.  Its job is to round up ideas from community members while at the same time luring potential developers.   

The all-volunteer TAC team is composed of everyone from finance professionals, healthcare workers and folks like Jessica Eiland, president of Northside Community Housing, Inc.   

Standing in front of Marshall Elementary on the north side, Eiland said filling this empty school with any kind of development could be huge.  

“It could be the catalyst to get other people thinking, ‘You know what, I should invest my resources on this side of the community,’” Eiland said.  

During public forums starting this week the district will keep asking community members what they’d like to see empty schools become.  The community forums will be held all month at St. Louis Public Schools headquarters.