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Politics & Government

Councilwoman Wants Swift Repurposing of Vacant School Buildings in the West End

Finding new uses for vacant school buildings can be difficult.

According to a study released by the Pew Charitable Trusts last year, empty school buildings can cost millions of dollars to maintain and are often sold below market value. The study also found that buildings are easier to repurpose if they have not been vacant for long.

Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith wants to move swiftly to repurpose four vacant school buildings in the West End.

“They’re a public safety concern in all of our areas,” said Kail-Smith. “So we want to make sure that we’re addressing this as soon as we can, as quickly as we can, and with the best resources we can put forward.”

One of those resources is a $150,000 contract with the Community Design Center, a nonprofit architecture firm, to study ways to repurpose the buildings that formerly housed Schaeffer Elementary and Intermediate Schools, Stevens Elementary School and Holy Innocence School.

“We had allocated money to the design center to work with our community groups and the district and all interested parties, all the stakeholders, to repurpose those schools,” said Kail-Smith. “We have several interested groups already.”

Kail-Smith was visibly excited by some of the ideas that she’s heard for repurposing the buildings. One group wants to turn Schaeffer Elementary into an aquaponics farm, which would grow produce and small aquatic animals.

“We have a group of artists interested in the Stevens building in Elliot,” said Kail-Smith. “They’re not only interested in the building, they’re moving people into the community, they’re buying homes, they’re looking at storefronts. They’re really making a huge impact in Elliot already.”

A group called the Shine Center is looking at Schaeffer Intermediate. Kail-Smith said the site would be similar in function to the Hill House Association in the Hill District.

A piece of legislation introduced by Kail-Smith on Tuesday would clean up some of the bureaucratic processes happening behind the scenes. A resolution passed in September charged the Pittsburgh City Planning Department with the task of working with the Community Design Center on the study for the three former public school buildings. The new bill would transfer that responsibility to the Urban Redevelopment Authority, which has already been working with the CDC to repurpose Holy Innocents.

Kail-Smith says the study should be complete sometime this Spring, and that she’s hoping to have the buildings repurposed in the next couple of years.