The empty halls of the Lansing School District
|By Sam Inglot|
Northwestern Elementary School, just south of the airport,
looks more like a crack house than a school. The building, which has
sat vacant for nearly a decade, is a sharp contrast to the surrounding
neighborhood of modest homes.
Francisco Ramirez, who has lived across from the vacant building for 15 years, says the place is an eyesore and attracts hoodlums.
“The rest of the neighborhood is really nice. The school district cuts the grass but other than that the building looks really bad,” he said. They took down the basketball hoops years ago because people were just “hanging around.”
The police were called several times over the years because kids had broken into the building, Ramirez said.
The empty brick building, which was built in 1939, sits on a six-acre plot in northwest Lansing. Playground equipment is overgrown with weeds, the remnants of a baseball field and backboards with no hoops surround it. The windows are boarded up and are covered in graffiti, same with the walls. A small tree also has sprouted up in front of one of the doors, a testament to how long the building has gone unused. The building looks like it belongs in a burnt-out urban wasteland, not a Lansing neighborhood.
Ramirez’s opinion on the building is similar to that of his neighbors: It looks terrible and something needs to be done about it. In his opinion, the district should turn the site into a community center or library.
Northwestern is one of five vacant buildings owned by the Lansing School District and part of a larger dilemma: What will happen to excess property if district enrollment continues on its downward trend? The building inventory is too large for the number of students. And if enrollment does stabilize, what can the cash-strapped district do with its vacant buildings, which also include Moores Park Elementary, Bingham Elementary, Otto Middle School and Wainwright Elementary? The district owns 62 buildings and properties in total, and administrators are trying to come up with a plan.
“When you look at the size of the Lansing School District and all of the real estate both used and unused, it’s a big thing to wrap your mind around,” said Myra Ford, president of the board of education.
Ford said the district needs to get moving on what to do with the growing number of vacant buildings so they don’t become a nuisance to communities.
“We need to move in a serious direction. Where do we need to be in 10 years? What is going to be our high school population? Which elementary buildings are aging out? We need a plan in place,” she said.
With the first week of school underway and the dust settling on the new district-wide reconfiguration, school officials say they are ready to tackle the real estate situation.
Moores Park Elementary closed in 2009, Northwestern has sat vacant since 2003. The three most recent closings of Bingham, Wainwright and Otto are the result of a new district reconfiguration that also included the closing of Elmhurst.
Although Elmhurst will no longer serve as a school building for kids, Lansing School District Superintendent Yvonne Caamal Canul said the building has been repurposed into a centralized location for district services. It now holds the parent resource center along with the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program.
Repurposing and the sale or lease of district-owned properties has happened in the past, but with a new administration comes a new way of doing things, said Sam Sinicropi, the district’s assistant superintendent of operations. He said the administration is setting up a real estate committee to analyze the property assets of the district to come up with a plan for how to tackle the vacant buildings.
The Board of Education decided to take all properties off the market earlier this year in order to assess the values, so the few building inquiries Sinicropi has received have been minimal.
“I haven’t had many lengthy conversations. I’ve had email inquiries and some calls, but I’ve mainly said, ‘Look, nothing is for sale right now. Keep your eyes and ears open,’” he said. “I’m very anxious for the committee to come up with plans because we need to for the city. Hopefully we’ll have some recommendations in the coming months, maybe even a month.”
The real estate committee will be made up of administration officials, Board of Education members and people from the community with real estate experience, he said.
“As a board and as a district, we need to decide what it is that we want to keep, what we want to keep up for the future and what is it that we think we’re not going to use again,” Caamal Canul said. “You can’t make those kinds of decisions until you know everything that you have. Right now the real estate committee is working on what we have and what everything is worth.”
The first step the real estate committee will undertake is assessing the value of the properties, she said. The administration wants to get an outside appraiser to take on the task.
“I would not want a buyer to think that we’re so helpless and needy that we’d sell anything for any price just to have the money,” Caamal Canul said. “That’s not how we want to approach our stewardship of the taxpayer’s property.”
Some thoughts on the schools
Northwestern is the token eyesore of the cluster of closed schools. Board President Ford said the district didn’t do what it needed to do to prevent the building from falling into disrepair. She said a lack of proper maintenance and a vision for the building after it closed led to the building’s looking the way it is.
“That was the problem with Northwestern,” she said. “It was closed years ago, and back then they did not do what they needed to do to keep it from getting to the point where it’s not habitable. We don’t want to do that with any buildings again — it doesn’t make sense to do that.”
Ford called the building “hazardous.”
Caamal Canul hopes that with the formation of the real estate committee, Northwestern will be the last school to sit vacant and unkempt for so long with an undecided fate.
“Northwestern is one of those properties that because there hasn’t been a real estate committee, it just sat there and languished,” she said. “Now we really need to do something about it. Do we give it to the Land Bank? Do we raze it? We’re not going to use it as a school. We know what the trend data says and we have neighborhoods that are not being populated with children.”
Both Ford and Caamal Canul talked about the possibilities of tearing down the building.
Otto Middle School, which is on the north side between Turner and Larch streets, was closed during the district reconfiguration. The enormous building is still being used for its community health clinic, though that will probably change in the near future with a school-based clinic opening this fall at Eastern High School, Caamal Canul said.
“We’re still debating what we’re going to do with Otto. It’s a huge building, it’s really a nice building, has some great qualities and has a lot of space,” she said. “We have to look to the future. We have to always think: Just because a school loses enrollment does not mean that facility, that building, can’t be functional for another purpose.”
Wainwright is a neighborhood school just like Moores Park, Caamal Canul said, which will factor in to how the district decides to deal with it.
“It’s a complicated site,” she said. “It’s right smack dab in the middle of a neighborhood, so for commercial property it’s a little difficult to sell. We would much rather have it as a community center or some place where kids could go.”
Add Genesee to the list?
Until recently, the Genesee School was the home of the Black Child and Family Institute (now known as Building Child and Family Initiatives) since 1986. Due to funding issues and a growing list of maintenance concerns, the community outreach group packed up its belongings and moved temporarily to the Foster Community Center. The group had a cushy, $1 a year lease with the district.
But with the possibility that more tenants may leave the Genesee School, 835 W. Genesee St., which needs extensive repairs, the fate of the building grows more uncertain. It may soon join the list of closed buildings.
BCFI was one of several community organizations that occupied the building. Other outreach groups, like Closing the Digital Gap, Greater Lansing African American Health Institute and Veterans Helping Veterans, are still there because they have summer programs that continue into the fall, which the district allowed them to wrap up, Sinicropi said.
“What we did is we struck a deal and said, ‘Look, we don’t want to throw you out on the street,’” he said. “All (the district does) is cut the grass.”
Marcus Jefferson is the executive director of Closing the Digital Gap, a Genesee-housed organization that provides computers, Internet access and computer training to low-income residents. His organization is one that would like to remain in the 100-year-old building.
“No one wants the building closed. It’s been an asset to the community for years,” he said. “In the last 12 years my program has trained 12,000 people and given away 5,000 computers.”
He said the building used to host an early childhood program, a WIC office and senior services. If the building were to close, he said, there are “elements” of the neighborhood that could take over. He said homeless people and drug addicts might move into the enormous building and bring the whole neighborhood down.
Jefferson led an energy audit this weekend with contractors from the Lansing Board of Water and Light as well as other organizations interested in the fate of the building.
“It would take months to tear this building down,” said Bob Tinker of Archiopolis, a commercial energy auditor. “We don’t want that. They don’t build them like this anymore, but any old building is going to require a lot of work.”
Tinker’s report on the building would be available in four to six weeks, he said. BWL’s walk through Genesee is part of a pilot program aimed at specifically helping nonprofits with energy audits.
Although the fate of the building is yet to be determined, Caamal Canul said the district may be able to help out the organizations that remain with work space.
“Since we do have space already in some buildings, I think that we would be probably willing to say to them, ‘Hey listen, we’ve got space over at Woodcreek or we’ve got space at Sexton if you want to relocate,’’ she said. “We’d be happy to look at that. We’ve been talking about that internally.”
Moving forward: charter schools?
Three organizations looking to start charter schools, including the Michigan Public Health Initiative and Building Child and Family Initiatives, have approached the school board with interest in some of the vacant properties. Although having the space filled would be ideal, Caamal Canul and Ford said there are a lot of logistics to figure out before delving into the realm of charter schools.
MPHI proposed the idea of an “Eastside Health Academy,” which MPHI officials said would be ideal for the now-vacant Bingham Elementary School across from Sparrow Hospital.
The founder of BCFI, Barbara Roberts Mason, told the board at a mid-August school board meeting that the organization is pursuing a planning grant to formalize the charter idea, which aims to help at-risk kids, and will then pursue an authorizer (she said they hope it’s the Lansing School District). Mason said that the recently vacated Otto and Wainwright school buildings would be “acceptable” accommodations for the program.
As for selling or leasing the properties after values are determined and they are put back on the market, Caamal Canul said the district has to think about whom they sell it to and how a proposed use will reflect on the district. In the Walnut Neighborhood west of Old Town, the small up-and-coming business Niowave renovated the vacant Walnut School in 2006. Neighbors and city officials have praised Niowave for rehabbing the building and improving the neighborhood overall — until the company built an unsightly 14,000-square-foot pole barn without neighborhood input and attitudes changed.
“A lot of people might be interested, but we also have to think, ‘Are you the right buyer?’ What someone is going to do with our property says a lot about what we value as important development,” she said. “We have to think about that because we are stewards — we’re not a corporation that can just decide without public input.”