Back to school

“So disappointing.” “What is the stupid reason for denying the sale?” “Ridiculous.” “Pathetic.” “It’s an election year, and they are worried about pissing off the 24 voters in the neighborhood.” “This is baffling to me.”

Those are just some of the public reaction comments to the 5-4 vote by City Council members to deny the sale of the former Phillips Avenue School to Cruz Companies to redevelop into housing.

That vote can be viewed as all of the above – but it also reveals something else about some council members:

A fundamental lack of understanding about the financial tools that enable redevelopment, especially in an urban space.

While many older buildings in a city like New Bedford may be full of historic charm, they don’t have a lot of intrinsic value to today’s developers. Most often, it’s cheaper to build new rather than renovate old.

Most likely in serious disrepair and saddled with out-of-date heating, cooling, electrical and plumbing systems, just bringing buildings like the former Phillips Avenue School up to code can bust a budget. That’s why so many of them dot the landscape.

There is, however, one tried and true way to bring these buildings back from the brink and reduce blight in city neighborhoods.

As one city official concisely explains, “The adaptive reuse of closed schools for housing is common due to simple math. The use of historic tax credits and housing subsidies makes the project feasible. In Gateway Cities like New Bedford, housing is the only viable use for these types of properties due to those historic and housing credits.”

The fact that the council members who shot down the Cruz proposal essentially didn’t acknowledge this fundamental reality is disturbing. A basic understanding of civic economics should be a qualification for the job.

Cruz Companies responded to a Request For Proposal (RFP) from the city which included a financial plan to make it happen. It was sound and credible, because it was based on tried and true redevelopment principles. It was also the only plan on the table, and it met the RFP criteria.

The idea floating around that it can be turned into a youth or community center is not rooted in reality.

There simply is no subsidy for that use, and no financial incentive for a developer to essentially create a multi-million dollar non-profit youth or community center. Give or take a grant here and there, it would have to come from the City of New Bedford’s budget.

For point of comparison, the centrally-located Andrea McCoy Recreation Center off Hillman Street was built and is owned by the city – and cost millions to rehab. A worthwhile investment, for sure, but one that can’t be endlessly duplicated without pulverizing the municipal budget.

According to the Standard-Times, after the vote Ward 2 Councilor Maria Giesta stated “she would work with the neighborhood and the city to get new proposals for the school” and, “talked about supporting proposals to build a community center.”

It will be interesting to read that community center proposal – and the way to pay for it that doesn’t entail your property taxes going through the roof. But we suspect a Giesta proposal for the Phillips Avenue School Community Center is probably kept in the same drawer as the “repeal and replace” Republican Health Care Plan.

In the meantime, below are some examples of adaptive reuse of former school buildings from around the Commonwealth that are based on financial reality and rooted in common sense. 

Funny, they all look suspiciously look like the plan put forward by Cruz Companies for the former Phillips Avenue School…

Class is in session, councilors.

In Bridgewater

In Winthrop

In Worcester

In Leominster