New life for old schools

Budgetary challenges, shifting populations, and outdated building stock have introduced another layer of complexity to already beleaguered urban school districts. But while a school district’s problem may be solved when a new school is built, in its wake lies yet another conundrum: what should be done with the now-vacant (and sometimes architecturally significant) school buildings that are left behind?

Both New Bedford and Fall River have recently closed schools in order to consolidate and/or rebuild. New Bedford’s Lincoln Elementary was constructed to replace the Phillips Avenue and Ottiwell schools, the latter of which is now home to New Bedford’s second charter school, Alma del Mar. Dunbar Elementary was recently shut due to low enrollments, so students were shuffled to nearby South End elementary schools. (To learn more, check out this Standard Times article that details the challenges of coping with old buildings and declining enrollments in Greater New Bedford).  In Fall River, bids were recently accepted from would-be buyers of five empty city schools. (It’s worth noting that this was the second round of bidding since August; then, two schools were successfully bid upon for $1,000 and $1.90, respectively.) Some sites have been eyed by prospective developers for razing and redevelopment, while others were seen as worthy of adaptive reuse.

One bidder, the Boston-based Women’s Institute for Housing and Economic Development, recently wrapped up a reuse project in New Bedford that converted Rivet Street’s Ingraham School into a mixed use site with subsidized housing for mothers on upper levels and nonprofit and community space on the ground floor. A similar project, Linden Street’s Acushnet Commons, continues to address the housing and service needs of women and families in New Bedford.

Beyond the WIHED model, best practices from other communities are easy to come by, offering cities with inspiration, good ideas, and even road maps to implementation.  Nevertheless, so much of any building’s successful reuse is tied to its context (location, location, location!). So while it would be great to see a replication of Portland, OR’s awesome elementary-school-turned hotel/bar/theaterin this neck of the woods, there seems to be little market for such a concept to be economically viable.


Naturally, the state of the economy doesn’t lend itself to taking on big ideas or big risks with these sites. But at the same time, the potential impacts of prolonged vacancy on the condition of the building and the surrounding neighborhood can’t be ignored. Fall River’s efforts to act are thus laudable, but we hope that the resulting projects are consistent with the community’s needs and existing development plans.

Want to learn more? Here are some articles worth reading:

  • “Preserving and Reusing Surplus Municipal Facilities,” from the Berkshire Region Planning Commission (link)
  • “Finding new lives for old schoolhouses: Buildings convert to other uses,” from the Cleveland Plain Dealer (link)
  • “Creating Schools and Strengthening Communities through Adaptive Reuse,” from the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities (link)
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