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Potential Savings in School Renovations

Thursday, June 29, 2006 at 1:05 PM

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A local preservation group says Cleveland's school district could save just under $20 million if it renovated four historic schools instead of building new ones. The Cleveland Restoration Society suggests the cost savings and cultural preservation it's report details could be just to tip of the iceberg. But the Cleveland Municipal School District isn't as optimistic. ideastream's Lisa Ann Pinkerton reports.

When John Hay High School was dedicated in 1929, the automobile was a rich man’s luxury. Today, John Hay is surrounded by the congestion of University Circle traffic.

But as you walk through it’s decorative stone doorways, it’s almost like being transported back to the roaring 20s. The school’s restored two-story marble lobby is hugged by symmetrically curving staircases and sparkles with ornate, gold colored plaster work.

The new John Hay high school will open in the fall - actually, as three schools, each with its own specialty. Kathleen Crowther, executive director of the Cleveland Restoration Society, says Cleveland could have more historic school buildings like John Hay.

Kathleen Crowther: Why shouldn’t we have beautiful buildings for our children with soaring ceilings, with huge windows with natural light flowing through them? This is maybe a subconscious thing that the children don’t see, but they are magnificent spaces that edify the idea of going to school.

John Hay was the first full renovation to break ground under the district-wide rebuilding project ushered in five years ago when voters passed Issue 14. At the projects outset, officials at the state level recommended replacing 93 of Cleveland’s 124 schools, much to the dismay of preservationists, who saw rehabilitating neglected but structurally sound buildings as a better - and cheaper - option. The Cleveland Restoration Society undertook a multi-year study in hopes of proving that. Again, Kathleen Crowther.

Kathleen Crowther: What our study points out is that when you consider the cost of demolition, and asbestos abatement required when there is demolition. That, in fact, rehabilitation of existing buildings is less expensive then new construction.

The School Restoration report examines four schools: William Cullen Bryant in Old Brooklyn, AB Hart on East 74th Street, Audubon in Woodland Hills, and Robert Fulton on East 140th Street - all buildings that share many features with John Hay High School. Even by following Ohio’s strict regulations for school buildings, it concludes renovating and adding additions to these schools would save over $17 million in construction and demolition costs, and keep many tons of rubble out of local landfills.

But Paul Flescher, chief of Capital Projects for the Cleveland Municipal School District, says from a builder’s point of view, it’s easier to spend the extra money to build four new buildings rather than deal with the unpredictable nature of renovations.

Paul Flescher: You can guesstimate the costs, but in every wall you always find something new. So you always look at any saving with a little bit of conservatism mixed in.

And Flescher says the John Hay experience bears that out. Still under construction, the project is $8 million over budget. But it’s still $1 million under what a new building would’ve cost. Flescher says the district recognizes the attraction of renovating, and notes that negotiations with the state have brought the number of schools to be demolished from 93 down to 59. He says even more schools could be renovated and restored, but only if they meet the educational needs of the district and adhere to enrollment projections.

Paul Flescher: New schools have value. They’re easier to lay out, but there’s a certain value for the renovated schools with some historic character in a building. So we’re not opposed to that; we would like to do those things. But our first goal is to make a decision for the children.

Still, Kathleen Crowther at the Cleveland Restoration Society contends the historic aspects of old buildings themselves are educational tools. She hopes the Cleveland Municipal School District will further consider restoring more Cleveland schools to their former grandeur.

For 90.3 News, I’m Lisa Ann Pinkerton.

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