It’s a different kind of homeschooling.
In Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City and other cities, developers are converting vacant schools into housing. It’s happening in St. Louis, too.
Seven city public schools have been redone as housing in the last decade.
The next area school to get such a transformation will be Lafayette School at 815 Ann Street, in Soulard. Advantes Development paid $800,000 for the vacant elementary school in July and will spend $3.5 million to outfit it with 36 market-rate apartments.
Brian Minges, the company’s owner, stood recently in front of the school and, half to himself, said, “It’ll be neat when it’s brought back to life.”
Work is set to begin this month with a goal of opening Lafayette Lofts to residents in fall of 2016.
In older cities across the country, unwanted schools are getting redone for offices, manufacturing and — most often — as apartments or condos. More than a thousand such schools become available each year.
The nation’s number of public schools has remained steady at 98,000 or so in recent years as new schools opened and old ones closed, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Between 2000 and 2012, annual school closures ranged between 1,200 and 2,200, said the center, citing figures from the U.S. Department of Education.
In St. Louis and elsewhere, declining school enrollments force administrators to mothball or close buildings that otherwise would require heating, cooling and upkeep even if only half full of students. Seventeen vacant St. Louis public schools are for sale, and eight more are under contract.
Walker Gaffney, the St. Louis Public Schools real estate director, predicted Advantes officials would succeed with their Lafayette project.
“That’s a good property for them and, for us, one less to worry about,” he said.
Developers’ interest in converting schools to condos or market-rate apartments is limited to those in healthy neighborhoods, such as Soulard. Lafayette, which closed in 2004, is among city schools that, as a bonus, have designs by William Ittner, the St. Louis architect who, more than a century ago, transformed school architecture with light-filled classrooms, wide hallways, libraries and intricate exterior brickwork.
Gaffney said Ittner-designed schools were well-suited as residences.
“The buildings make cool apartment space — high ceilings, big windows, lots of light — a lofty feel,” he said.
“I was pinching myself when this came available,” he said of Lafayette, which was built in 1906. “Location is always first for us, obviously.”
Empty schools in poor neighborhoods, however, can draw developers’ interest if low-income housing tax credits are available to offset renovation costs and permit rents low enough for people who meet the income guidelines of affordable housing programs.
For example, the former Arlington School, at 1617 Burd Avenue, is part of the Arlington Grove mixed-income apartment project opened in 2012 by the Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church and developer McCormack Baron.
Historic preservation tax credits also are available for many school rehab and restoration projects. Advantes, for example, anticipates getting $750,000 in state historic tax credits and about $1 million in federal historic tax credits for Lafayette, which is within the city and federal Soulard historic districts.
Minges said his company would clean the three-story school’s brick exterior and replace the asphalt in front with grass. Residents will park under carports to be built on the east end of the 1-acre site or inside Lafayette’s small gym, which was added decades after the school opened.
Like other old schools, Lafayette is structurally suited to residential conversion. Each classroom will become a loft-style apartment.
“This building lines up very well for apartment development,” said Minges, who plans 24 two-bedroom and 12 one-bedroom units for the project.
Apartments will have refinished maple floors. Some will retain the original built-in bookcases of quartersawn oak, although the blackboards will be removed. Cloakrooms will become bathrooms and closets. Monthly rents will range from about $900 to $1,200, Minges said.
The principal’s office will become a residents’ laundry; but Lafayette’s marble and travertine entrance, broad staircases and maple-floored hallways will be restored to meet historic tax credit requirements. Minges noted that old city schools are built like “fortresses.”
“And they have character, too,” he added.
A study by the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design found that in the seven cities examined, about half of the schools closed in recent years had been redeveloped. The study, done in 2013, recommends setting redevelopment timelines and involving communities in school reuse plans to defuse potential neighborhood conflicts.
St. Louis school officials try to address those concerns. Sale agreements for city schools require redevelopment to begin within 12 months and completion within 30 months. If either deadline is missed, the school district may buy back the property at 70 percent of the sale price. School sites have deed restrictions that prohibit bars, nightclubs and adult book stores.
Minges met in March with members of the Soulard Restoration Group, a neighborhood organization, to explain his Lafayette Lofts project and his plan to attract young professionals as residents. He also described his company’s recent redo of the former Hope Lutheran School, at 5320 Brannon Avenue, as the 22-unit Mack Lofts.
Julie Dinkelmann, who has lived across the street from Lafayette since 1992, said the school’s residential conversion would be “a fantastic addition” to Soulard.
“A vacant building is not good for the neighborhood,” she said.
Dinkelmann, 51, said she preferred apartments for Lafayette because in its original use, school buses often clogged the street.
Joining the closed-school-to-apartment trend is Garcia Development Corp., which last week put Gratiot School, at 1615 Hampton Avenue, under contract for $414,000. Jenifer Garcia, a company owner, said the plan was to redo the school as 22 market-rate apartments.
Gratiot’s draw as apartments will be its proximity to Interstates 64 and 44, she said.
Garcia said the project’s appeal “from a management perspective” was that the school, built in 1873, could be rehabbed with new, low-maintenance systems. The school’s age and partly boarded-up condition is a personal attraction, she added.
“I love creepy, abandoned old things,” Garcia said.
Minges is doubling down on his public school-to-apartment strategy. Last week, Advantes put under contract — for $700,000 — Sherman School, in the Shaw neighborhood. The school, built in 1898 at 3942 Flad Avenue, is an Ittner building that closed in 2013.
Sherman — near Tower Grove Park, the South Grand business district and the Missouri Botanical Garden — is situated to lure Advantes’ target demo of millennials, the generation born between 1982 and 2000.
“We are excited about our investment in the area as we see it being an important historical landmark that can become a residential cog in the St. Louis city’s redevelopment,” he said.