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Community Leaders Debate How to Repurpose Schenley High School

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The closing of Schenley High School in 2008 was hotly debated in the Pittsburgh Public Schools system and the building's North Oakland community. Today the discussion rumbles on about the best way to repurpose the building for the future.

This week, community leaders, architects, and development professionals met for the second of three sessions to determine what to do with the space, and how to dignify the historic building many hold dear.

"It's fair to say it would cost the school district a lot of money to make this building a contemporary high school," said Norm Cleary, community member and vice president of the Schenley Farms Civic Association.

The building closed due to falling plaster ceilings and asbestos contamination that, combined with the cost of modernizing electrical, plumbing and heating and cooling systems, would slam the district with a bill totaling between $55 and $80 million to fix. "Many of the neighbors have taken a pragmatic view of it and said, 'Well, if it can't be a high school anymore, what can it be?'" Cleary said.

Suggestions presented at the meeting center around different types of housing: senior housing, rental housing, condominiums, and live-work incubator spaces. "The building sets up well for that, as many schools do, with the old classrooms," said Rob Pfaffmann, a consulting architect from Pfaffmann + Associates, "and then there are some who would still like to see it have some educational or learning facility, but broader than a traditional school."

When it opened in 1916, Schenley was the first high school in the country that cost more than $1 million to construct. Its lavish interior boasted classrooms with oak moldings and 15-foot ceilings, a 1,600-seat auditorium, and a pool. Windows lining the building allowed streams of natural light to pour into classrooms. "It was a very innovative school to begin with. When it was built it was really ahead of its time," said Pfaffmann. The building is included on the National Register of Historical Places and considered a historic landmark by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

The Oakland Planning & Development Corporation has not yet endorsed any plan for the building's future and is instead focused on sparking dialogue among people who live close by. "Parking is a main issue and is one of the things we're looking at," said executive director Wanda Wilson, citing a study of the impacts increased traffic might have on the neighborhood.

The development group is just finishing "Oakland 2025," a master plan to manage the growth of the community over the next 15 years. "People think that Oakland is done being developed, but there are a lot of opportunities," Wilson said. "Schenley High School is one of the major priorities. … Getting the right fit there can really spark some additional investments in the blocks around it."

Hear a full interview about the subject on Essential Pittsburgh.