When Schools Close, Doors Open to Opportunities for Revitalization

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, December 8, 2007

Some in the real estate industry, seeing fewer parking lots downtown and fewer parcels of land elsewhere, worry that the District will soon run out of land on which to build.

Yes, the number of empty sites is decreasing. But the number of sites suitable for redevelopment will also greatly increase, often because the buildings on them are no longer viable or because the sites are underused.

One such opportunity arose last week when D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and D.C. School Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee proposed closing two dozen D.C. public schools because of declining enrollments and to free up resources. Fenty and Rhee took heat from D.C. Council members, who felt insufficiently consulted, and from residents who questioned the need to close schools in their neighborhoods.

Shutting down underused schools makes economic and academic sense, but the heat might have been less intense if the mayor and chancellor had suggested how each property could be redeveloped to benefit its community and the District as a whole.

In fact, decommissioning such schools offers neighborhoods great revitalization opportunities.

Depending on location and accessibility, school properties can be transformed to meet a variety of needs: affordable housing, retail, office space, health-care facilities, day-care centers, community recreation and parks. Of course, charter schools can join the mix.

Some school buildings are suitable for preservation for architectural, structural and functional reasons. Those can be modernized and incorporated into new construction on the site. Obsolete buildings should be demolished.

The reuse of a school property must respond to community needs. But other important determinants include the condition of existing structures and utilities, the physical characteristics of the site (topography, soils, tree cover) and the character of the surrounding neighborhood.

It may be appropriate for the District to retain some school properties, hold off redevelopment and seek interim tenants to help pay for upkeep, if such schools may be needed again later.

In fairness to the mayor and chancellor, there has not been time to create a detailed redevelopment strategy for each of the 24 schools proposed for closing. After all, the priority is to quickly produce measurable academic results.

Yet it's not too soon for D.C. agencies, including the Mayor's Office of Planning, to begin studying and suggesting redevelopment options for each property. Such studies must be holistic, taking into account the District's Comprehensive Plan as well as neighborhood plans.

What the District should not do is follow conventional surplus-property disposition, auctioning off individual sites to the highest bidder.

Instead, in collaboration with each community, it should establish property-specific redevelopment goals concerning uses, density, affordability, urban and architectural design, and historic preservation. It must then ensure that developers, which could be private companies, nonprofit organizations or other qualified entities, achieve these goals.

The District owns other properties that, sooner or later, will be declared surplus. And there are countless federal properties scattered around the Washington area that the government probably doesn't need.

If we had a map showing all of these properties, we might be surprised at how much available real estate still exists.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company