E. Hills residents seek to turn closed school into community hub

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An East Hills group yesterday sought the city's help in turning a shuttered school building into a community center that would offer sports, education and social programs and be named, in part, for late city Councilman Duane A. Darkins.

Konota Gaskins, a Democratic committeeman and president of East Hills Community Youth Adult Council, pitched the idea to Neil D. Parham, the city's youth policy manager, in a meeting at the City-County Building. Also present was Arlinder Lang, a former East Hills resident helping Mr. Gaskins.

Mr. Gaskins said he has been trying for three years to establish a community center in what he described as a dying neighborhood. He said the East Hills International Studies Academy building, which the Pittsburgh Public Schools closed in June, would be an ideal site.

While they said they expected to meet with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, Mr. Gaskins and Ms. Lang instead gave a nine-page proposal to Mr. Parham. After reviewing the proposal, Mr. Parham asked for more detailed plans.

In an interview, Mr. Gaskins said he wanted to name the center after Mr. Darkins, a two-term city councilman who died in 1994, and one or two other prominent residents.

"This is a place where we know our children would be safe," Mr. Gaskins said of the 34-year-old building, where he once operated after-school and summer programs and organized youth Halloween parties.

East Hills was one of 22 schools and 18 buildings that the district closed after the 2005-06 school year. In all, the district has as many as 27 closed buildings it could sell to pay down debt or finance capital projects.

While the district wants to get the most money possible for a building, city Councilman William Peduto and representatives of the Vacant School Reuse Project have urged school officials to consider a neighborhood's needs. That, Mr. Peduto said, might mean making sales price a second priority.

"A school is an anchor. It can either be closed and bring a community down or adaptively reused and help a community to rise," Mr. Peduto said, calling a community center one way to enhance a neighborhood's livability.

Mr. Gaskins said he wants the city's financial help in purchasing or operating the center, which would offer bingo, movies, dancing, gymnastics, fencing, music instruction, tutoring, mentoring, career-development services and social-service programs.

School board member Randall Taylor, who represents the East Hills, said he'd like the district to use the building as a school again. But if that doesn't happen, he said, a community center would be a good use.

Joe Smydo can be reached at jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.


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