Back to School: Communities Ace Adaptive Reuse Test

December 31, 1999
park place

The once vacant New Chicago Elementary School in North Memphis was converted into senior citizen housing, a police miniprecinct and a community center.


The Chicago Park Place project represents a partnership between the city of Memphis, a church, a private developer, a bank and its CDC affiliate.

From the smell of lunch wafting from the cafeteria, to the squeak of sneakers reverberating off the gymnasium walls, to the persistent chatter of students navigating the locker-lined corridors, school buildings often evoke fond memories of student life. Yet, despite their symbolic role in the passage to adulthood, all too often the hallowed halls of many storied school buildings are threatened by the continuous population shift patterns in modern America.

During the last few decades, thousands of once vibrant schools have been shuttered as previous generations of students graduate and emigrate from the neighborhoods in which they were educated. For communities experiencing the changes that necessitate such choices, finding alternate uses for these often impressive structures appeases communities not ready to part with these marvelous structures. Often, it also means the community saves money on the development of needed services and facilities.

In fact, former schools have been retrofitted for diverse uses such as affordable housing, business incubators, job-training centers, and health, educational and social services facilities. Largely due to their size, these buildings can accommodate a diverse tenant base. Across the nation as well as here in the Eighth District, many communities are taking advantage of the opportunities vacant school buildings provide.

Keeping the Faith

The former New Chicago Elementary School in North Memphis was built during the early 1960s and remained in operation until the late 1980s. After remaining idle for a decade, a 16-month effort—using funds from a variety of sources—helped community leaders renovate and convert the school into Chicago Park Place—a mixed-use structure encompassing 39 affordable rental units for seniors, a police mini-precinct and a community center. The interior and exterior renovation, which was completed in the spring of 1999, included new windows, a new pitched roof in place of the flat roof, revised entryways, off-street parking and new landscaping to provide a more residential design and feel.

A consortium of civic organizations and contractors helped make this restoration possible. The general partner in the Chicago Park Place project is Greater Community Projects, Inc., a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation that is wholly owned by Church of God in Christ Greater Community Temple (GCT) located in the New Chicago area of Memphis. Other partners include the city of Memphis and First Tennessee Housing Corporation (FTHC), a development entity of First Tennessee Bank focusing on affordable housing opportunities. Capital Development, LLC served as the developer.

Joy Richmond, vice president, FTHC, said seeds for the Chicago Park Place project were sown years ago when Bishop W. L. Porter, GCT's founder, acquired the property several years before the renovation effort for approximately $5,000. Bishop Porter's son, Brandon Porter, who is GTC's current pastor, was integral in making this project a reality.

Richmond says vacant schools provide a head start on projects that might otherwise be too demanding on the limited resources of economically depressed communities. "It allows for the utilization of a neglected resource," Richmond says. "Typically, the buildings are structurally sound and well-suited for elderly multifamily dwellings, given their prior uses as schools."

The project, according to Richmond, enabled FTHC and others to respond to a community in need. "This structure stood vacant for years in an area that was suffering from severe economic depression after a local plant closed, which was a major source of manufacturing jobs in the area," Richmond said. "New Chicago has a lot of history, and this development definitely sparked a renewed interest in the neighborhood."

A Gift with Class

The former Manual High building in Louisville, was spared from demolition through the collaborative efforts of various entities including: the city of Louisville, the Jefferson County Board of Education, The Courier-Journal, preservationists, Old Louisville neighborhood leaders, Male alumni and an investment group call Spectrum LLC.

Rural communities also have seen the benefit of adapting closed school buildings to new uses. In fact, renovating a former school building in a rural community often means preserving one of the community's most significant historic structures.

The original high school in Salem, Ill., was auctioned by the school board on the courthouse steps in the mid-1970s. Thelma Bailey, a member of the community, bought the school, which was built in 1915, with the intent of turning it into a community center. Bailey spent $25,000 to acquire the building and another $100,000 for all the renovations necessary to convert the school to a community center.

In 1980, the Salem Community Activities Center, Inc., opened. Currently, the center's tenants include the Boy Scouts of America, Girl Scouts of the United States of America, American Red Cross and the City Parks and Recreation Department. The center provides a variety of services such as a food pantry, karate classes, after school tutoring program, volleyball and basketball leagues, and GED classes. Additionally, community members can rent areas in the center for parties and weddings.


The renovated facility currently houses: Project Empower, which is a youth training program; a childcare center; and Kentuckiana Nursing, a temporary employment agency for nurses. Half of the second floor is being renovated as offices for doctors who work nearby at University Hospital. Additionally, the auditorium (pictured above) is available for rent to community groups

The center has 501(c)(3) status, but the majority of its operating capital comes from fundraisers and weekly bingo. The only public money the center has received came last year in the form of Illinois First monies, which was used to replace the roof and make the restrooms handicap accessible. Otherwise, volunteers and the board of directors perform regular building maintenance, and many local businesses provide funding through sponsorships.

The project began 25 years ago when one woman thought the town would be better off making use of an old school rather than tearing it down. And, according to Diane Holsapple, the center's managing director, the center provides one of only a few entertainment venues for the community's youth.

Former school redevelopment projects have many beneficiaries. Citizens in the communities surrounding the projects benefit from localized services. Service providers enjoy cost savings through shared expenses. And, the projects spur additional redevelopment, rehabilitation and revitalization throughout the neighborhoods surrounding the former school.

Chicago Park Place Sources of Funds

First Tennessee Housing Corporation $ 1,846,092
First Tennessee Bank (permanent) $ 500,000
City of Memphis
Division of Housing and Community Development
$ 250,000
Greater Community Projects, LLC $ 156,000
Total $ 2,752,092

Bridges is a regular review of regional community and economic development issues. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

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