Cover Story: Atlanta Public Schools' vacant buildings trapped in time
The uncertain future and untapped potential of APS' empty buildings
On an early February morning, flashlights and cell phones illuminate a safe path in the pitch-black halls and rooms of A.D. Williams Elementary School in northwest Atlanta. The floor of an office near the front door is piled high with books.
"Be careful and watch your step," says Michael Campbell, CEO of Black on Purpose TV, to the group of lawyers, associates, and electricians walking behind him. "There's glass here."
Campbell has big plans for the two-story school, which has sat empty for more than five years. He plans to turn the campus into a TV production studio that would eventually include a 200-seat auditorium, a museum, and day care for artists and workers.
Before Atlanta Public Schools placed chain locks on the doors and covered the windows, the 1967 building served children who lived across the street in Bowen Homes, the 30-acre public housing complex that was home to hundreds of men, women, and children and, in later years, crime. It was a "city within a city," one former resident recalls, with its own library.
Bowen Homes is now only a name. The Atlanta Housing Authority-owned property is fenced off. Near Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway, the lawn where orange-colored duplexes once stood is manicured. Old trees remain standing, giving the appearance of a cemetery with no headstones. The rear of the 30-acre complex is like a nature preserve. Behind barbed-wire fences grass grows taller than the average person.
Inside A.D. Williams, a blue-and-white 86,000-square-foot school named after Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s grandfather, it looks as if a bomb exploded. The floor of the former library is scattered with sheet music, file cabinets pushed into a storytelling pit. Remnants of fluorescent lighting tubes pop with almost every step. Vandalism has stripped the facility of nearly all its value. According to electrician William Scott, the utility room suffered approximately $250,000 worth of damage in metal theft — all for about $2,000 in copper.
"This is the worst I've ever seen," says Scott. "I haven't seen tornado damage this bad."
A.D. Williams is one of approximately 12 APS buildings that now sit vacant and boarded up. Buildings that are no longer needed are considered "surplus." Some of these buildings, the oldest of which was built in 1912, sit in the middle of neighborhoods. In some cases, the buildings were closed because not enough children lived in the attendance zone to justify keeping them open. Others might have suffered from structural issues or become redundant after other facilities were built — or, after the Civil Rights Movement, were integrated.
In some cases, these often-majestic buildings are reminders to communities of a time when there were enough children in surrounding homes to give them a purpose. Famous people studied in their classrooms, including King, Evander Holyfield, and Maynard Jackson, the city's first black mayor. Some of the buildings are blah mid-20th-century low-rise boxes. Either way, left unused, they can become boarded-up burdens on neighborhoods, attract copper thieves, and discourage investment. And they're costly. According to APS, the school system spent approximately $27,000 per building to maintain the structures during the 2012-2013 fiscal year. Giving the buildings a second life can be a long and expensive process.
At Old Fourth Ward's David T. Howard Elementary, paint splits from the walls of hallways where King once roamed as a student, and old furniture is stored on the basketball court where Walt Frazier is said to have played. The power is still on. Pendant lighting that lines the long corridors flickers faintly on a freezing February day.
George W. Adair Elementary, in southwest Atlanta's Adair Park neighborhood, has been closed since the early 1970s. The Gothic Revival two-story building sits catercorner from the community's eponymous greenspace and three blocks from the Atlanta Beltline, which has helped fuel revitalization in the historic neighborhood.
"As people drive through the neighborhood or visit they'll say, 'That's a beautiful building but it'd be even better if it had a useful purpose — or a purpose that was conducive to the surrounding environment and neighbors,'" says Randy Gibbs, president of Adair Park Today, the neighborhood association. "It has great potential but is just a void."
The story repeats itself in Chosewood Park, where Milton Avenue Elementary School has not served students since 1983. After the school shut down, the building served as a city-operated homeless shelter.
Other cities such as Detroit and Philadelphia, hit hard by funding crises, have sold off several schools at once to shore up balance sheets. In the past, the city has sold or leased buildings as buyers came forward, or done so through brokers who marketed several buildings.
In some cases, the buildings once again served their original purpose as charter schools, just under new management. The Center for Puppetry Arts in Midtown was once an APS school. Or, as is more common, they became housing. During the 1990s and 2000s, sturdy brick schoolhouses built in the late 1800s and early 1900s were converted into lofts across the city.
In 1979, Bob Silverman of Winter Properties walked out of the Variety Playhouse or Horizon Theatre in Little Five Points — he can't remember which — and marveled at the old Bass High School sitting on a hill along Euclid Avenue.
"I said, 'Someday that's going to be surplus. I want to buy it and make it a beautiful loft apartment building,'" says Silverman, who developed Westside's Carriage Works, Poncey-Highland's Copenhill Lofts, and Downtown's Muses' Lofts. "Nineteen years later I did."
When he entered the circa 1920s building, "it was horrible. There were still papers all over the place. Water infiltration on the exterior walls." But three years and about $12 million later, he had created high-quality housing and added life to a key corner of the city.
In Reynoldstown, Chris Appleton is trying something different. In early February, WonderRoot, the arts nonprofit he co-founded and directs, inked a lease with APS for the 50,000-plus-square-foot former Hubert Elementary School on Memorial Drive. In two years, Appleton says, artists will pass each other in the second floor hallways of the 90-year-old building as they walk to classrooms-turned-studios filled with natural sunlight. Forty-five spots are available and 280 artists or groups have already applied for space.
Compared to A.D. Williams, Hubert is move-in ready. Sure, the pipes are galvanized, some asbestos sits undisturbed here and there, and some walls need paint, but the building's bones are secure. On the first floor, next to a gym that still features the old billboard, residents and activists will be able to talk over coffee and pastries in an on-site restaurant and gathering space. A new 2,000-square-foot gallery built on top of the old boiler room will house exhibits; bands will play down below. The estimated $3.5 million project is set to begin fundraising soon.
Several years ago, the school system contracted with two real estate firms to market surplus properties that didn't sell during the down economy. Last year, as the market improved, APS stepped up its efforts to unload several properties, including two historic schools located in Adair Park and Chosewood Park. Other properties are currently being shown by APS officials.
A political dispute between APS and Mayor Kasim Reed has slammed the brakes on the school system's ability to transfer the deeds to the interested buyers. The stalemate has led neighborhood residents to demand the mayor hand over the deeds and sparked a debate among members of the Atlanta City Council over which approach will best resolve the issue. On Monday, the City Council approved a Reed-supported proposal by Councilmembers Joyce Sheperd and Kwanza Hall to find a solution to the entire issue.
Absent political struggles, however, there's the reality that purchasing or even leasing a building from APS can take time — sometimes more than a developer might care to spend or a nonprofit can afford to wait. It took Appleton more than 27 months to finalize a lease with APS. Campbell first reached out to the school system in October 2012.
Alvah Hardy, the executive director of APS' facilities services department, says the recent round of property sales have been guided by a strict process that requires system officials to solicit proposals, allow competing developers and nonprofits to present their plan, and gather community input at public meetings.
After all this time, it's uncertain whether Campbell will move ahead at all. The early February visit left the TV producer frustrated. While he waited to ink a deal with APS, copper thieves and vandals kept ravaging the building. Re-investing in the facility to make it habitable no longer makes financial sense. He has turned his attention to another vacant school near Westview Cemetery in southwest Atlanta. When he offered to pay $50,000 down and finance the property over time with APS, he says system officials turned him down.
"I'm just one guy who wants to make a difference in the community," Campbell says. "But I need the support of the school system to do that. And for some realities to sink in. If your property has been sitting there for years and hasn't improved, make it happen for the community."
— Additional reporting by Cleo Durham and Robert Isaf