The 2013 groundbreaking for Teachers Village in Newark, New Jersey, received much attention as a model for how school-centered development can lead urban renewal. The project consists of three charter schools, a daycare center, more than 200 housing units premarketed for teachers, and 70,000 square feet (6,500 sq m) of retail and restaurant space. In addition to state and federal tax credits, the $150 million mixed-use project was funded by a veritable who’s who of private investment firms, including Goldman Sachs, Prudential Financial, TD Bank, Brick City Development, New Jersey Community Capital, and BRT Realty. Scheduled to complete construction this year, the project is projected to generate 400 to 500 permanent jobs and serve about 1,000 students.
A monumental investment of this nature could represent a new dawn for urban school-centered development, but such projects require developers to be committed for the long term when it comes to partnering with educational institutions.
The link between the economic and social vitality of a city and the quality of its education offerings is indisputable. Research and opinion polls consistently identify local school quality as a factor influencing where people decide to live and buy a home. For many years, community development corporations and private developers engaged in urban revitalization across the United States have been leveraging investments in communities with improvements to neighborhood schools as a way to draw families to the urban core.
While the quality of a neighborhood can provide a competitive advantage for attracting businesses and employees, this “think local” principle for schools means that school-centered development projects tend to be unique. Scale and replicability become elusive sirens in the development process. For example, a study published in the Summer 2014 Journal of Planning Education and Research reported that a survey of state revisions to school siting and minimum acreage guidelines concluded that no uniform policies exist for how school districts can use revised planning provisions for the siting of structures. Even when guidance is provided that supports innovation in the construction or joint use of a school for community purposes, this does not mean that school boards are positioned to carry out that guidance.
So, if the process of school investment and management is locally controlled and perhaps arbitrary, how can school development reform be implemented? For that matter, how can the real estate sector be a partner for change? The following three examples show how developers and community representatives are revising practices in order to improve program investment and practices related to school development.
SweetBay, Panama City, Florida
SweetBay, a 700-acre (280 ha) mixed-use infill development of the former Panama City–Bay County International Airport site in Panama City, is the largest business and residential community development project in the city’s history. At buildout in 15 years, the project is estimated to provide an additional 3,200 homes and 700,000 square feet (65,000 sq m) of commercial and education space, as well as parks, ponds, and other green space.
At the heart of the community is University Academy, a public charter school serving kindergarten through fifth grade. In 2012, the school launched activities on the Panama City campus of Florida State University (FSU), which is also the curriculum partner for the school.
“We realized earlier on that there was a competitive disadvantage because of the strong school districts in the surrounding communities,” says Jacob Fish, director of development at St. Andrew Bay Land Company, the local office of project developer HomeFed Corporation. “Sooner or later, it will adversely impact absorption because other school districts were so strong.” In response, the project’s developer decided to make a charter school the cornerstone of the community.
Established with 126 students in 2012, University Academy now enrolls 300 students and has an 800-student waiting list. Students started the 2014–2015 academic year in the former Bay County International Terminal Building, which underwent a $5.3 million renovation. Redevelopment of the building was the first component of Phase I development, which also includes 260 singlefamily detached homes around the school, creating the first neighborhood in SweetBay.
Because of state and federal regulations, St. Andrew Bay had to consider how to integrate a school into the master plan of the community. After review and analysis, it decided that the notion of a neighborhood school would be attractive to young families. Working with the local school district, state legislators, and FSU, St. Andrew Bay was able to help clarify public guidelines that made it difficult to support a neighborhood-school concept. The company and educators advocated for changes to district legislation stipulating that if certain investments of land or
assets are made in a development project, up to half a charter school’s enrollment could be set aside for residents of that project. This meant that the developer could be secure in its investment and assure the public agency that the school would really function as a neighborhood school.
Fish says the process of preplanning was “more difficult and more time-consuming” than he would have preferred, but “the end product is better than anticipated.” University Academy has outperformed original estimates for enrollment and student achievement, and Fish notes that parents and residents frequently ask about the remaining phases of construction and when properties will be available for purchase. With the launch of the Sweetbayfl.com landing site this past January, the developer now can collect data on buyer and tenant interest.
Most important, though, Fish says, “We created a school that not only benefits residents but also the greater community.” The board of University Academy, of which Fish is chairman, is now working with the school district to share knowledge about connecting residential development with school development.
Gestalt Community Schools, Memphis, Tennessee
Gestalt Community Schools, a charter management organization in Memphis, developed from the belief of chief executive officer Derwin Sisnett that the hard work of neighborhood revitalization lies in the rehabilitation of schools as the community’s anchor. Previously the executive director of the Power Center Community Development Corporation (CDC), which also focuses on community revitalization of the Hickory Hill neighborhood in southeast Memphis, Sisnett recognized that in order to truly leverage investments in housing development, he needed to work with a charter school that has its own good reputation and success.
Power Center Academy was established in 2008 with 125 sixthgrade students in the Hickory Hill area of Memphis. It has been in the top 5 percent among charter schools for enrollment growth per year and in 2011 was the highest-performing middle school in Tennessee. Gestalt Community Schools now operates five schools with 1,700 students in kindergarten to high school.
The decision in 2011 to start Gestalt Community Schools was the best decision, Sisnett says. By forming Gestalt Community Schools as an entity separate from Power Center CDC, “the single group could focus solely on the school properties and program policies. Power Center CDC could focus on the nonschool development—compartmentalizing uncomplicated things.”
Developing a public charter school also addressed a market problem. In Memphis, public schools typically have 300 to 400 students per grade; in the Hickory Hill neighborhood, the number is 600. Unless the stress on the education resources in the neighborhood was addressed, any further housing development would be troubled. “People were looking to flee from the neighborhood,” Sisnett says.
Though Sisnett left Power Center CDC to lead Gestalt, he maintains a seat on the CDC’s board of directors—a crossover written into the bylaws of Power Center CDC in order to establish transparency and sustain a relationship between the two organizations. Keeping a positive relationship between the CDC and the charter program is extremely important, says Sisnett. “Residents needed to see a school that engages with its community—that the organization was interested in the neighborhood,” he says. The partnership also helps build the confidence of residents, and they begin to imagine what is possible and important to their future.
Gestalt is now organizing a major effort in the Hickory Hill neighborhood. It is working with partner Power Center CDC to redevelop a former Marina Cove apartment site as the primary location for Power Center Academy Town Center, which will house middle school operations and accommodate expansion of an elementary school and a community performing-arts center. The project will address 24 acres (10 ha) of blighted space and 18 acres (7 ha) of undeveloped land.
This sizable investment is best achieved through the commitment and partnership between Power Center CDC and Gestalt, Sisnett says. The difference in working in partnership instead of alone is like “buying a single stock or buying into a mutual fund,” he says. In order to secure the investment and generate a return, partnering with a strong nonprofit is a “no-brainer,” he says.
Repurposing Initiative, Kansas City, Missouri
Creating demand in urban neighborhoods presents a big test for school revitalization or redevelopment. “Dealing with public assets is a challenge, especially when there is a generational connection to the property,” says Shannon Jaax, director of the Repurposing Initiative of Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS).
Jaax is responsible for the strategy, design, and conveyance of 30 school properties in Kansas City that the school district closed in 2010. Since the initiative started in 2011, the city has sold nine school properties, leased one, demolished two (at the request of the community), and reopened one as a public school; two more sites are in the pipeline for redevelopment.
KCPS launched the Repurposing Initiative with a yearlong community outreach process. Determined through the initiative to elicit feedback and understand the vision of the community and prospective buyers, Jaax says the objective was not to define what the building should be at the start, but to present and develop ideas of what the building could be based on market research and community interests. “It’s more than the building envelope. Generations of families that have attended the school— it’s emotional, and the process needed to acknowledge that.”
Thus far, the impact has varied according to the property’s location. The first property sold went to a respected charter school; since then, the surrounding homeowners have reinvested in their properties, but there is no evidence or analysis yet showing broader neighborhood improvement. But no new investment has been seen in neighborhoods where schools remain vacant, Jaax says, and the school administration has not assessed the effects of outstanding vacant properties on land values.
Jaax admits that the process intimidates private developers, but she and her staff continue to work with community members and prospective buyers to identify new uses for the 15 remaining vacant buildings.
Maintaining the principles of a school-centered development strategy is challenging. Lack of school district policies and procedures, inadequate staff capacity or support, and the lack of transparency of existing school operations are obstacles that require time—and the efforts of many stakeholders— to overcome.
The potential for establishing a clear, replicable method for coordinating school development, private development, and community facilities is hard to evaluate because it is difficult to determine how school systems make their investment decisions. In many cases, the process is complicated, too reliant on single-source leadership, or requires local community engagement, making it difficult to deliver innovative practices and establish them as a prototype. However, reinforcing the link between schools and community can have a great impact on the social, economic, and physical character of a neighborhood.
“This course of finding balance between the public asset and the developer’s objective—and educating the public about the cost and risk of development—is a long-term effort,” Jaax notes. “But this is the way you build trust within the community.”
For more information, visit the ULI Rose Center for Public Leadership post about the 2013 Charles H. Shaw Forum on Urban Issues.
ALISON JOHNSON is a program manager at ULI.