Rehabs help schoolhouses rock: Threatened properties receive new life as apartments

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As several local developers have discovered, some of the functional design aspects of school buildings also make attractive components of a successful apartment building.

At least two north-side elementary schools closed by Indianapolis Public Schools in the early 1980s have been transformed into apartment communities, and another developer has found a niche turning old high schools in some of the state’s smaller cities into senior housing.

By keeping the historic character of the buildings and serving a lower-income population, these developers have also discovered the unusual conversions can be financially viable, as well.

As much as half of the conversion cost of a project may be covered by tax credits available through the Indiana Housing Finance Authority, said Mike Kaiman, business manager for Turner Construction Company of Indiana LLC, the locally based division of New York-based Turner Construction Co.

Turner, through a joint venture with locally based Trotter Construction Co., in 2003 finished construction on Franklin School at 28th Street and Capitol Avenue. The senior housing community is owned by Community Action of Greater Indianapolis and was completed with help from the city.

Credits are available for restoration and renovation of historic properties, as well as for apartments that qualify as affordable housing for lower-income families and individuals. Meeting the historic requirements-which might include leaving chalkboards in place or restoring old windows-isn’t always easy, developers said, but the credits are a key financing tool, and eventual tenants appreciate the unique character of the old buildings.

“The biggest challenge was meeting the historic preservation requirements,” Kaiman said of the Franklin School project. “It takes a lot of time, effort and investment.”

The financial boost from tax credits allows developers to use less debt financing on a project and put more money into the construction, using higher-quality finishes than might be found in a more modern affordable-housing project, said Leo Stenz, president of Indianapolis-based Stenz Corp.

Stenz has renovated former high schools in Lebanon, Crawfordsville and Lafayette using tax credits and partnerships with not-for-profits serving seniors in those cities. Having a not-for-profit involved makes it easier to obtain the tax credits, but just as important, the organizations provide a connection to the community and knowledge of the population that will be served by the project, Stenz said.

Once construction is finished, Stenz manages the properties, which are owned by limited partnerships that include Stenz and the banks and corporations that purchase the tax credits.

In Lebanon and Crawfordsville, the old high schools included gymnasiums, which the company turned into fitness centers open to the broader community. All three of the projects also include a commercial component, in which not-for-profits serving seniors have opened offices.

The number of apartments in the three projects ranges from 60 units in Lebanon to 74 units in Lafayette.

The effect of each reuse, Stenz said, is a sort of “senior clubhouse” that keeps older adults active and in their community.

Community connection was a key factor in deciding to renovate the Franklin School, creating 38 apartments for lowincome seniors, Turner’s Kaiman said.

The school’s near-north-side neighborhood has many older adults who have lived in the neighborhood much of their lives. Many times, they or their children attended Franklin School. When these people become unable to keep up with the maintenance and expense of a house, they don’t want to leave the community.

With the apartments, “they stay in the community and in the urban environment,” Kaiman said. “They still go to the same grocery stores they’ve gone to their whole lives.”

Taking on an adaptive reuse of a school building brings certain challenges, developers said. It’s a given that mechanical, electrical, plumbing and sprinkler systems will need to be updated. Making apartments fit into an existing interior floor plan is another challenge. With Stenz’s projects, it’s rare that two apartment units are alike, Stenz said.

Schools offer other advantages, however. The central hallway and rooms on either side with exterior windows are perfect for apartments, Kaiman said. Schools also have built-in gathering spaces, such as cafeterias and auditoriums, that can be used for meeting rooms, laundry rooms or mechanical rooms.

Another benefit is that school buildings are easily secured, a fact not lost on Lianne Somerville, executive director of Coburn Place near 38th Street and College Avenue. The not-for-profit has provided temporary housing for victims of domestic violence in the former IPS Coburn School since 1996.

“It’s a very secure-feeling building,” Somerville said. “Women feel safe here.”

The former school was redeveloped and is owned by Carmel-based Pedcor Development, which partnered with the nowdefunct Martin Luther King Jr. Community Development Corp. on the project.

Like the senior-housing projects, Coburn Place was eligible for affordablehousing tax credits because it serves a low-income population. Rent there is based on income, and women can stay six months to two years while they get back on their feet after leaving a domesticabuse situation, Somerville said.

“Because of the building, we are able to provide supportive services on-site,” she said. Residents receive counseling and job-training services and also have enough space to gather for social activities.

Pedcor’s renovation also gave the building a residential, rather than institutional, feel, Somerville said. Residents and visitors are often surprised at the building’s character, she said, with its historic details such as large windows, brick walls and terrazzo floors.

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