14 April 2009

Byers School Sale Recommended

Byers School on the 100 South block of Pearl Street, owned by the Denver Public Schools and home to the Denver School of the Arts until 2003, after which it was left empty, has been recommended for sale, as part of the DPS effort to purge 30,000 excess school room slots in places where there aren't kids to fill the empty real estate. Two other schools are also recommended for sale. The final decision will be made by the school board in June.

Conceptually, this makes good sense. The school district needs money to build schools in new developments like Green Valley Ranch and Gateway that are booming and too far from existing schools to transport kids economically. It also needs to cut maintenance costs for a building that isn't providing any value to the district. And, the district has too many classrooms in any case. Schools that are already empty are also less disruptive to children to sell.

The central administrative offices at 900 Grant Street makes even more sense to sell, as office space near downtown has a deeper and less depressed market than school buildings, which require creativity and money to repurpose. School administrative offices can be put in harder to sell school buildings, leaving the option of reconversion to classroom use open should enrollment trends change. The district can always get new office space in existing buildings if it needs it, but would have to build schools from scratch.

Byers School has a historic designation, so it will be difficult to use as something other than a loft or office conversion, or some sort of educational institution (perhaps a cluster of charter schools or a small college). Indeed, the building is so massive that even a scape would be a challenge. Unfortunately for the district, there isn't a huge demand for Byers area lofts or office space now, and a lack of neighborhood parking complicates some of the most sensible uses like use by private colleges. Lack of a school yard also complicates use of the building as a charter school complex. Any major residential conversion (the fate of most dead schools in the area) would require a large construction loan that may be hard to come by during the current credit crunch.

The cheapest residential conversion would be to make the building into a massive single occupancy hotel (i.e. low rent housing for the otherwise homeless), which would not require every classroom to have new plumbing (since single occupancy hotels don't generally have bathrooms in every room), would not require as much parking and would carry federal subsidies. It would meet almost all of the city's currently unfilled need for that kind of housing. But, residents would probably not be thrilled to have several hundred direly poor new neighbors.

The bottom line is that the district is unlikely to get top dollar for this prime property despite the fact that it is a rare opportunity to buy an entire block in an area zoned for high density housing.

In a worst case scenario, it could be bought by speculators and left as a neighborhood blight like a historic school in the Golden Triangle that stayed shuttered for many years after it was purchased because the buyers lacked money and a plan to make use of it. Barring this worst case scenario, however, Byers school will be a huge infill project of some sort or another, if sold.

The school yard on the 200 South block of Pennsylvania was sold to developers in happier times not long ago. The developers, constrained by zoning regulations and economics, are building ugly single family residences that look like cereal boxes on their sides -- tall, deep and narrow with standard or near standard setbacks -- because residents fervently opposed more attractive townhouses or duplexes, despite the predominantly multi-family character of the neighborhood. These buildings illustrate, dramatically, the concept that single family housing isn't necessarily better for the neighborhood. The project seems to be moving slowly. But, what new development isn't these days?


Michael Malak said...

The sale of the Byers field doomed the prospects for the Byers school building.

Given the historical designation, I was fantasizing about someday purchasing it for $1 for the school I started -- given the millions that would have to be put in to refurbish it. But it's worthless as a school now, given modern-day legal requirements for outdoor square footage.

Jamie said...

Not everything in Christianity can be novel. Lack of novelty does not imply lack of authenticity. E.g. there are more than one monotheistic religions, but that does not mean that all monotheism is wrong. Most pagan societies say murder is wrong, but that doesn't imply that God didn't give the Ten Commandments to Moses.