New uses sought for closed Pittsburgh Public School buildings

Vacant sites pose bigger problems in struggling neighborhoods, councilman says

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With scores of vacant and abandoned houses, Homewood didn't need to lose a city school, too.

Yet a reorganization of neighborhood schools closed the Belmar school building about a year ago, and it has become one more obstacle to the neighborhood's revival, said Councilman Ricky Burgess, who last week suggested that the Pittsburgh Public Schools develop a comprehensive plan for marketing closed school buildings.

Under that plan, he said, the district should devote as much energy to selling or repurposing buildings in poor, struggling neighborhoods as it does in affluent or up-and-coming neighborhoods. He acknowledged that it would be a difficult balancing act because of market demand, but said neighborhoods must receive equal treatment.

"I'm certainly willing to be part of that conversation," Mr. Burgess said.

The issue likely will grow in importance.

Long faced with declining enrollment and financial problems, the school district has 15 vacant school buildings now. Another seven will be empty after another round of school closings this year.

Spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said the district is considering a new marketing plan for disposing of closed buildings.

After announcing plans to close the Reizenstein building in bustling Shadyside, the district quickly found a buyer -- developers of the Bakery Square development right across Penn Avenue. The sales price, approved in November, was $5.4 million.

The district also has succeeded in repurposing some buildings in more troubled neighborhoods. It sold the Ridge Avenue school on the North Side to Light of Life Ministries for $1.1 million and is leasing the former Columbus middle school, also on the North Side, to the Propel Northside Charter School.

But Mr. Burgess said other closed buildings are "desolate islands" and a "testament to urban decay." According to a 2006 inventory by A+ Schools, an education group, at least one of the district's closed schools, Gladstone in Hazelwood, has been vacant for more than a decade.

Jim Richter, executive director of Hazelwood Initiative, said Gladstone is in poor condition now. He said Burgwin, which the district closed in 2006, and St. Stephen, a former parochial school, are in better shape and better poised for reuse.

Belmar is one of two vacant city school buildings in Homewood, Mr. Burgess said. In addition, the nonprofit Community Empowerment Association moved into the former Holy Rosary school building about a year ago and is attempting to buy it from the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese.

Rashad Byrdsong, Community Empowerment founder, said closed school buildings have the potential to be centers of economic and human development -- places where new businesses are incubated, children attend after-school programs and social service programs are offered to adults. He said government subsidies, or rent from private-sector tenants, could help support the centers.

Mr. Burgess isn't the only city official trying to nudge the school district to do something with closed schools.

Councilman Bill Peduto wants to set aside $5,000 to study possible uses for the Schenley high school building, closed in 2008 for maintenance reasons. The historic structure occupies a prime spot in Oakland.

Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith said the West End Alliance and Community Design Center of Pittsburgh plan to study possible uses for four closed or soon-to-be closed city and parochial school buildings in western neighborhoods.

education - neigh_city

Joe Smydo: jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548. First Published June 4, 2012 12:00 AM


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