The purchase of old school buildings could mean new neighborhood assets and some extra cash for Columbus City Schools.
A dwindling student population has resulted in a glut of unused Columbus City Schools buildings in recent years, putting some unique historic properties on the market and raising significant cash for capital projects for the school district.
Since 2006, the district has earned $65 million from the sale of surplus properties such as the former Barrett School on Deschler Avenue in Merion Village, where developer Casto Communities built 52 rental townhomes and 22 for-sale homes. Other notable properties that have hit the auction block include the former Africentric High School just south of Downtown, the former Indianola Middle School in the University District and the Columbus Maennerchor building in the Brewery District. The latest round of 11 properties to go up for sale is expected to generate at least $30 million for the district.
With the city district's student population dropping dramatically—from about 100,000 in the 1970s to below 50,000 by 2000—district leaders by 2006 began to consolidate schools to right-size its real estate holdings and lay out a 20-year plan to provide safe, modern buildings for its students, a process that included building new schools.
Anne Dorrian-Lenzotti, the district's director of real estate and shared facilities, says state law requires the district to offer surplus school buildings to charter schools first and then other community institutions before putting the properties through an open auction. Only three of the 11 properties in the latest round of property sales ended up in the hands of charter schools, including the former Indianola Elementary School on East 16th Avenue a short walk from the North High Street corridor at Ohio State University. That buyer had previously leased the property from the district.
The surplus properties identified in 2016 for disposal included Fifth Avenue Elementary near the junction of the University District and Victorian Village. The district has tentatively sold the school at West Fifth and Forsythe avenues to Upper Arlington-based multifamily developer Vision Development Inc. for $4.5 million after the initial winning bidder, Chicago-based Clark Street Holdings, gave up on its plans to build 250 high-density residential units on the 3.1-acre property, realizing it lacked neighborhood support. “Before we get too far along, we want to get input from the neighborhood and the area commission,” says Vision Development President Brent Wrightsel. The residential component will likely attract young professionals and empty nesters, with some commercial retail possible along Fifth Avenue. “I think the market will tell us which way to go,” Wrightsel says.
Another shuttered building, Neil Avenue Middle School at 2571 Neil Avenue at Hudson Street, sold at auction for $1.15 million in late 2017. The winning bidder, Columbus-based Kelley Companies, has not revealed its redevelopment plans. “Neil Avenue Middle School was attractive to us because of its impressive architectural details, the history of the building and its central location” north of Ohio State, writes Principal Michael Kelley in an email. “Since this is a 90-year-old building that was designed specifically as a school, re-developing to another use requires some extra creativity and imagination.”
A third University District property was on the Columbus school district's 2016 list of surplus facilities. On the eastern edge of the University District, Ohio State has put the shuttered Indianola Middle School at 430 E. 19th Ave. in contract even though it has no conceptual plans for the 95,000-square-foot building on 9.4 acres that has been vacant since 2010. “We felt that property that big has a contribution to make in the neighborhood,” says Keith Myers, OSU's associate vice president of real estate and planning. “How that contributes we really haven't decided.” That said, he says OSU closed on the property at the appraised value of $3.2 million in September.
Other properties sold since 2016 include the 7.5-acre former Africentric School, 300 E. Livingston Ave., which Nationwide Children's Hospital bought last fall at auction for the $15.25 million appraised price. The hospital plans to initially use the site for parking for its campus that has moved westward in the last decade from its Parsons and Livingston avenues base.
The only property of the 11 that has not sold is the district's former Trades and Industry vocational school Downtown at 300 E. Spring St. That property—valued at $2.33 million by an appraiser—did not capture the interest of a charter school, but it has yet to get scheduled for an auction, Dorrian-Lenzotti says, pending the Dec. 31 expiration of a lease with the nonprofit Child Development Council of Franklin County educational services agency.
Columbus State Community College in late summer formally expressed an interest in acquiring the real estate just outside of its formal property acquisition boundaries. That prompted the Columbus Board of Education in early September to agree to delay any auction or consideration of any other bidders as the community college investigates the opportunity, which may include cooperative education programs with the district in that building.
One of the most intriguing Columbus Schools properties to hit the auction block is the former Columbus Maennerchor building at 966 S. High St. After another developer dropped its winning bid for the historic building under pressure from historic preservationists, a new bidder emerged this spring for the property located behind the district's Stewart Alternative Elementary School at Stewart and City Park avenues: a limited liability company tied to CoverMyMeds founding partner and technology adviser Chip Burke, who lives nearby on East Deshler Avenue with his wife, Julie. The couple hopes to preserve and renovate the property as a nonprofit arts and community education center for such groups as scouts, musicians, theater troupes and other clubs. “We want to provide a space that is not only easy to book and use for appropriate groups,” says Burke in an email, “but one that is suitably built for those purposes.” Burke and his wife, who bid $526,000 for the property, plan to seek National Register of Historic Places status for 1880s-era building.
While the plans remain unclear, Dorrian-Lenzotti expresses hope the deal will progress to a closing and successful transformation into an asset for the neighborhood. The educational focus of the plan “will enhance the community,” she says, “and the district will make a little money.”
Brian Ball is a freelance writer.