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School’s in session--in former factories, grocery stores and malls

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**Please note small file size 1500 x 1200 pixels** With available land scarce and expensive, several charter schools in New York City have converted vacant buildings. The Bronx Charter School for the Arts in Hunts Point took over a refrigerated warehouse. (Courtesy of Esto Photographics)

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**Please note small file size 1500 x 1200 pixels** The Bronx Charter School for the Arts occupies a former warehouse for kosher foods. "It's very open and there's a lot of space to display art on the wall" said Xanthe Jory, the school's executive director. (Courtesy of Esto Photographics)

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**Please not small file size 1500 x 1200 pixels** School districts can save time and money by converting stores, malls, and factories into school. The Bronx Charter School for the Arts in New York occupies a former warehouse for kosher foods. (Courtesy of Esto Photographics)

You can’t buy anything at the old Maryvale Mall in Phoenix. There are no restaurants or stores. And parking is limited. But you will find more than a thousand people there every day--students at the elementary and middle school that now occupy the space.

Following a long economic decline in the surrounding neighborhood, the mall closed in the early 1990s and sat vacant for seven years. But the school district was growing rapidly, as older residents moved out and young families moved in.

The school district bought the buildings for a paltry $7.5 million. It spent $16 million converting stores into classrooms, parking lots into ball fields and the old movie theater into an auditorium. The total cost was less than the district would have spent on building new schools--if it had anywhere to build.

“We’re a landlocked district,” said Rick Conrad, an assistant superintendent of the Cartwright School District, which includes Maryvale. “We don’t have any available property.”

Around the country, school districts are turning to this “adaptive reuse” approach to school construction, renovating former factories, office buildings and big box stores like Wal-Mart.

So far, the conversions have been concentrated in school districts where fast-rising enrollments and high land prices leave few alternatives. The districts get the space they need without having to battle for vacant land. Neighborhoods get to replace eyesores with schools, which raise property values and double as community meeting spaces.

In several cases, they’ve also spurred economic revivals. Soon after the Maryvale schools opened in 2000 and 2001, the Milwaukee Brewers built a spring training ballpark nearby. Stores opened up. And the county built a new library and community center down the road.

“It was really a catalyst for urban renewal in the area,” said Elisa Warner, a planner for BPLW, the company that handled the renovation.

Reuse projects are also consistent with the “smart growth” movement in urban planning. Using existing buildings is eco-friendly. And filling vacant spaces in developed areas keeps schools within walking distance of existing housing.

No school conversion is without challenges, however. The large buildings suitable for schools tend to have few windows (architects often add skylights). Traffic can be a problem for sites on busy commercial roads, which weren’t designed to accommodate buses and carpool lines. And schools replacing vacant urban buildings have nowhere to put playing fields, forcing some to partner with other schools or city park agencies instead.

Still, the advantages typically outweigh the downsides, advocates say.

“Districts can save money doing this,” Warner said. “They can shorten their construction time, which is very important when you have a high-growth district that needs a school yesterday.”

That’s a lesson that school officials have taken to heart in Wake County, N.C., part of the fast-growing Raleigh-Durham area.

“We have affordable housing, job availability, several universities, a lot of basketball,” said Bill Poston, a spokesman for Wake County Schools.

The district is growing by 7,500 students a year. It needs to add a high school, two middle schools and three elementary schools just to keep pace.

It would be impossible to meet that need without new construction, but reuse projects have filled a critical gap, said Mike Burriss, the assistant superintendent for facilities. Facing a critical shortfall of high school seats eight years ago, the school system converted a pharmaceutical office and warehouse into a transitional ninth-grade center.

“It’s not necessarily a savings of money. In that case it was time. We needed seats. We needed seats badly,” Burriss said.

The conversions can be completed in as little as six months, compared with nearly two years for new construction. And the work isn’t dependent on the weather. The school system has two more conversions in the works: a factory and a Winn-Dixie grocery store.

Districts like Wake County are hardly the norm. Local governments have been slow to embrace the reuse approach, and as families move out of big cities, residents are often left fighting to retain existing schools.

“Detroit, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, D.C., Portland, Seattle, these are cities that are just losing their children,” said Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, which seeks to improve school facilities. “So you’ve got two sides of this going on.”

Even in big cities, though, one group is relying on innovative school sites: charter schools, independent public schools that generally don’t have access to the pool of available public land.

“The charter schools don’t have a choice,” Filardo said. “They kind of have to make this work in an outside-the-box kind of way.”

In New York City, charter schools have occupied a former Pfizer plant, a refrigerated warehouse and several historic buildings. A private charter school company is looking to put another one in the former Bronx Borough Courthouse--a majestic marble and sandstone building built in 1914 and abandoned in the 1970s.

Alternative spaces have the potential to be not just convenient but inspiring. Students and teachers have come to appreciate the high ceilings and feeling of open space at the Bronx Charter School for the Arts, once a warehouse for kosher meats.

“It’s very open and there’s a lot of space to display art on the wall, which is really important to us,” said Xanthe Jory, the school’s executive director. “It’s become a really important part of our school culture and our identity.

“I’ve become an even stronger believer in the impact that physical space can have on the life of an institution--because it doesn’t feel institutional,” she said. “It feels very clean and open and welcoming.”

E-mail: kjm2121@columbia.edu