3 Ways Developers and Land Use Professionals Can Help Urban Schools & Neighborhood Revitalization

Hellooo PPPers, Detroiters, and those of you who are not one of the 20 million people who have already watched the new Star Wars trailer!

The new light saber may help you handle drunk co-workers at the company holiday party.

Raise your hand if you’ve been to a conference on real estate development or neighborhood revitalization where one of the key topics was urban schools.
— No one?

Okay, well raise your hand if you’ve been to an conference on urban schools where they’ve discussed real estate development.
— *crickets*

Despite the lack of an integrated conversation on these topics, the fates of urban neighborhoods, real estate development and urban schools systems are often intertwined.


Unfortunately, how we discuss these issues -- in separate conferences, hearings and studies - is only part of the problem.  The other problem is the lack of cross-sector accountability. As an example, the schools chancellor is mainly focused on the educational outcomes IN the building -- he or she is not responsible for the effects on the neighborhood if the building is empty. Nor is she responsible for the vibrancy-killing, anti-placemaking effects of hulking school buildings that are a dead zone during evenings and weekends.

The Walking Dead.   Oh wait, not THAT kind of dead zone.

The Walking Dead.  Oh wait, not THAT kind of dead zone.

This kind of dead zone.

This kind of dead zone.

Empty or underutilized schools are a persistent blight on urban neighborhoods around the country. Public schools aren't the only blighting force in urban neighborhoods, but they are a significant one.  The declining quality of our public schools is directly correlated with an increase in empty or underutilized public school buildings in our urban neighborhoods.  The reasons for the correlations are numerous, and they depend on the city.  The common thread is poor quality public school education causing parents to flee urban public schools and therefore urban neighborhoods.  Many are flocking to urban charter schools (which are public schools, btw) and therefore staying in urban neighborhoods.  However many people are also moving to the suburbs or, when they can afford it, out of emerging neighborhoods and moving to other neighborhoods in their cities which have better public schools.

Why Should We Care?

Let's face it, many of us developers, consultants, land use professionals do not live in the type of neighborhoods where hulking, soul-killing public school buildings are usually located.  Nor do we usually have to send our kids to schools in those neighborhoods.  The state of public school education and public school buildings don't affect our day-to-day lives.  However, a number of us care anyway.  We just do.  With that said, there is a business case for real estate professionals to care about the state of the public school system and its school buildings. We should care for reasons that go beyond sheer compassion:  Empty or underutilized public school buildings negatively affect the development and retail market in urban neighborhoods, particularly emerging neighborhoods or ones with other challenges.

Here are two ways underutilized public school buildings limit urban neighborhood revitalization:

  1. Debases Your Customer Base. A vacant and/or poorly designed school building will have an effect on who is willing to move to the neighborhood and who will stay.  If you think about the folks who will pay the greatest rents, the people who will pay the highest condo prices and the customers who will pay the most for a cup of coffee (supporting your ground floor retail), they all pick neighborhoods that are not pock marked by poorly lit, out-of-scale and mostly dark, public school buildings.   Moreover, long-time residents of neighborhoods, even if they are of limited means and have less neighborhood choices, may leave for affordable housing in other neighborhoods, if they can find a neighborhood without a public school building eyesore.   To be clear, this debasement of your customer base is not just about the buildings -- the lack of quality education being provided in many of these schools also keeps your ideal renters, buyers and shoppers away, and helps push longtime residents with options out of the neighborhood.  As a matter of fact, the state of many public school buildings is really just a symptom of the larger disease -- poor urban school educational outcomes. 
  2. A Pox on your Placemaking (and your Retail). Residents, developers and investors alike benefit from well-lit, pedestrian oriented places which feel vibrant, safe and welcoming.  As Chris Leinberger and Mariela Alfonzo showed in their seminal Brookings analysis, better built environments --i.e. better places--are directly correlated to higher rents, higher values and better development metrics.  Many of these school buildings and urban schools contribute to the aspects of the neighborhood which are the antithesis to great placemaking -- including poor design, limited pedestrian activity and large, monolithic curtain walls.   If you are thinking about doing a multifamily building with ground floor retail near a public school building, your retailer options often become limited to cell phone stores, fast-food places and miscellaneous shops.  It's all correlated --the school building negatively affects the placemaking near your building, and accordingly limits your retail options. Residents suffer from the limited neighborhood-serving options, and your proforma suffers as well. Poor placemaking and urban design can almost singlehandedly restrict the urban regeneration potential of an emerging neighborhood.

What Can Land Use Professionals, Real Estate Developers and Public Officials Do?
"Do what you do!" is a mantra of many rap songs.  That mantra can also apply to real estate developers and land use professionals when it comes to urban public school education and its buildings.  We're not educational professionals, so we often believe our ability to directly affect public school educational outcomes is limited.  So we usually move on, skip those neighborhoods and ignore those school buildings. But we can do more.

Here are three examples of things we can all can do in the intersection of real estate and public education - and two of them involve "doing what we do":

1.  We can become part of public-private partnerships that redevelop the buildings themselves. Earlier in this post I called Hine Junior High School a dead zone.  You can see from the pictures below that I wasn't joking. 

One side of Hine Junior High School on Capitol Hill in DC.

This side of Hine Junior High faces retail across the street.

The building is underutilized, hulking and not a positive contributor to placemaking or neighborhood revitalization in the area.  This area of Capitol Hill has boomed in recent years, but for years this building stood tall as a remnant of the not-so-good-ole days.  Luckily, the DC government and a local development team have joined forces to redevelop Hine Junior High into new luxury rental apartments and affordable housing.  It's a public private partnership at work.  

2. We can leverage new financing tools to build new schools that will better support the neighborhood. Developers can partner with cities to redevelop schools into a higher and better use, but they can also help bring new schools to a neighborhood and simultaneously improve public school education and a neighborhood's revitalization efforts.  Forest City development's ground breaking partnership with Johns Hopkins and the City of Baltimore is a great example of how a developer can help catalyze the redevelopment of a neighborhood partially through the building of a new school.

The East Baltimore Development Initiative's revitalization of East Baltimore includes a new charter school.  Graphic courtesy of Gene Thorp, Washington Post. 

3. We can support our elected officials and legislators in their activities to assist in the redevelopment of urban neighborhood schools. Developers and land use professionals not only have to make our jackhammers heard but our voices heard as well.  We need to support efforts by our elected officials and legislators that support neighborhood revitalization and the redevelopment of urban schools.  We also need to speak up and push back on legislative or regulatory efforts that make the redevelopment of urban schools harder or less likely.

Developers should help city legislators repeal laws that harm our ability to execute on school building redevelopments like the Hine School redevelopment discussed above. 

For example, in DC, Senator Mary Landrieu created a huge stumbling block for the redevelopment of vacant school buildings by secretly passing a law that forces the DC government to give charter schools "a right of first offer" to lease or purchase such buildings at a 25 percent discount.  The law creates unnecessary red tape and does not necessarily focus on the highest and best use for the buildings or the neighborhood's vision for its own revitalization.  Maybe they don't want a new charter school!  The Landrieu law -- and Senator Landrieu may be the Walking Dead herself considering her current political status -- is an example of a law that real estate developers and land use professionals should fight against.

All in all, there is a clear intersection between the fate of our public schools, our neighborhoods and the real estate development market.  We developers, consultants and land use professionals should care, not only because we have a unique ability to help, but also because the fate of public school buildings does have an effect on our pocket books.

Let me know what you think!

-- Calvin

Posted on November 27, 2014 and filed under Most Read.