EDITORIALS

Finding new uses for old schools poses challenge

Posted May 08, 2011, at 6:25 p.m.

With declining enrollments, more and more schools have become vacant not just in Maine, but around the nation. Communities are struggling with their fates. Is it OK to tear some down? When are they worth renovating? What is the highest and best use of an old school?

Communities throughout Maine will be wrestling with these questions in the coming years. Some already have made decisions about abandoned schools, with mixed results. Many old schools have been sold at below-market prices to local nonprofit groups and then converted into artist studios, producing modest income. The low rents mean little money is available to keep the building in good repair. Others have been converted into housing for seniors or people of low income; only government subsidies make those sorts of endeavors work financially.

In Brewer, where four schools are no longer needed, a local committee is leaning toward demolishing two buildings and perhaps reusing two. Much of the decision-making process, in Brewer and elsewhere, seems to be guided by the period in which the schools were built.

The brick buildings constructed in the 1885 to 1935 period have, for the most part, held up well. Their builders splurged on their aesthetic appeal, so granite arches or headers over windows, columns and window transoms over entrances, and soaring ceilings and broad staircases in lobbies were the norm. These amenities make the case for preservation.

Schools built to serve the baby boom generation in the mid-1950s through the early 1970s often were stick-built, on slab foundations with flat roofs. They have not aged well. These are the schools that are likely — and appropriately — candidates for demolition.

Because schools have such amenities as parking lots, athletic fields, auditoriums and gymnasiums, they lend themselves to public uses. They often are in or near prime downtown locations. But public uses may not be the best uses. Just as some old churches have been converted to high-end condos, single-family homes and restaurants, the highest and best use of old schools might come by selling them not at a discount but at fair-market value.

But some money might need to be spent by the prospective seller. A fine old Victorian home that has fallen into disrepair is not likely to sell for a good price, and the new owner may not be able to invest in the needed renovations. Though local governments loath to do so, they may need to invest in improving old school buildings so they will fetch top dollar and, maybe more important, owners who will treat them with TLC.

Scanning Web search results from news sites around the country, it seems the wheel is reinvented each time communities must dispose of an old school. There are plenty of listings for community meetings at which brainstorming sessions take place to arrive at a reuse plan.

It seems an opportunity exists for a firm of bright, creative architects to offer plans for renovating Maine’s better old schools.

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