Breathing new life into Baltiomore's old schools

Robert W. Hearn

May 01, 1991|By Robert W. Hearn

NEWS REPORTS in March focused on the success of developer Bettyjean Murphy and her proposal to convert former School No. 34 in Washington Village into affordable housing for low-income Baltimoreans. This is the first time that a woman African-American developer has been awarded a project of such importance in Baltimore, and it is a very significant development for our city.

But behind those headlines, there is another important story: It is the story of a metamorphosis that is taking place in many Baltimore neighborhoods. Former public school buildings that were once empty, such as School 34, are -- or soon will be -- thriving with new life and contributing to the strength of city neighborhoods.

As Baltimore's population has grown smaller and older, these buildings are no longer needed as schools. However, they are still prime public resources and are being used as part of the Schmoke administration's affordable housing strategies for Baltimore.

The former Louisa May Alcott Elementary School is a good example. The graceful old structure on Reisterstown Road was built in 1910 and closed in 1982. It is being reopened as Alcott Place, a 44-unit apartment complex for low-income elderly citizens in Park Heights. The units have contemporary amenities, including new heat pumps, alarms and intercoms, while maintaining unique touches from the past. The original maple floors, tin ceilings, and, in many cases, even the original classroom doors have been preserved. Some blackboards have been saved and installed in the corridors as message centers for residents. This is a remarkable effort at conservation, and it has meant a dramatic change for the better in the texture of a neighborhood.

Similar transformations have occurred in a number of other areas. School No. 142 is now Coleman Manor on Walbrook Avenue. This $3.2 million project renewed a blighted property and has helped trigger increased renovation activity in the community by private homeowners. The old Frederick Douglass High School in Sandtown-Winchester was vacant for 34 years. In 1988 it was restored as 100 rental units. Efforts are now under way, with strong community support, to convert the unused auditorium to a performing arts center.

Some restorations meet pressing social needs. Bon Secours Hospital, for example, has already converted former School No. 48 in southwest Baltimore into housing for the elderly, and is moving on to former School No. 68 into even more elderly housing. This is creating a total of 185 residential units for senior citizens, allowing them to live in comfort and security.

Other recent successes include the conversion of School No. 148 on North Rosedale Street in Walbrook to 34 low- and moderate-income rental units and the rehabilitation of School No. 453 in Washington Hill back into a school and offices by the Kennedy Institute for Children. This represents an expansion by the institute which will create 50 new jobs at all levels, including many new opportunities for neighborhood residents. A bright future is also planned for the site of School No. 69 on West Cold Spring Lane, which will be the site of single-family detached and semi-detached houses for homebuyers.

While these efforts involve different neighborhoods and meet different needs, they have one thing in common: They are real partnerships among city, state and federal governments, lending institutions, for-profit and nonprofit developers.

Making these projects work, however, is not always easy, and funding for Alcott Place in Park Heights reveals just how complex they can be. That single project involved funds from the federal government, bolstered by the state, a loan from the city's Community Development Financing Corp., a bridge loan from Maryland National Bank and use of tax credits, syndicated to investors who take the credits for investments that help preserve historic sites. Working out that kind of arrangement requires patience, imagination and determination by all of the partners.

In addition to financing, there are other challenges such as zoning issues and community concerns. But by being opportunistic and entrepreneurial, the city and its partners have found ways to overcome these obstacles in collaboration with our neighborhoods and provide communities with attractive and valuable new neighborhood assets.

Robert W. Hearn is commissioner of the city Department of Housing and Community Development.

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