What Happens to a School When It’s No Longer a School?

The metal letters hanging from the bricks of West Hurley’s former elementary school now read “WEST HUR EY SCH O .”  The concrete front steps are crumbling. Through the tinted windows, the main lobby is dark and empty, except for an American flag standing alone in a corner. The second school building on the property, an old wooden schoolhouse with butter-yellow paint flaking off its boards, is infested with mold. Warped sheets of corrugated metal attached to the 80-year-old building’s brick addition act as a storage shed of sorts. Through the shed door’s broken window you can see a “Do Not Enter” sign, a pile of black rubber tires, a chalkboard and a mop. Behind the shed, purple and green plastic dinosaurs, rusting monkey bars and a seesaw rest on a patch of lawn. The absence of children hangs heavily in the air.

School buildings are notoriously difficult to sell. Between 2012 and 2017, New York State saw 193 district schools close their doors. Of the 18 closed in the Hudson Valley, only two have been successfully sold. Another building is stuck in a pending sale, one was demolished and four sit vacant. The other 10 buildings remained district property and were repurposed, often becoming sites for alternative education like BOCES, or municipal offices. Some school boards opted to lease the empty space to local businesses. These reuse projects parallel examples in “Closing a School Building: A Systematic Approach,” a process manual written by educational facility planning expert Edward M. McMilin, REFP (Recognized Educational Facility Planner). In his paper, published by National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, McMilin identifies several potential options for closed buildings, but warns that selling or destroying a school building is not only difficult, but also puts a community at risk of shorting itself on school space in the event that enrollment rises again years later.

But that does not appear to be a significant concern for New York state in the coming years. The National Center for Educational Statistics’ most recent projections show a fairly steady decline in the state’s public school enrollment.

Public School Enrollment Grades K-12.FINAL-01
Source: U.S. Dept. of Education, NCES, Projections of Education Statistics, 1991-2019.

In the Hudson Valley, most schools have seen significant enrollment declines each year since the late 1990s and early 2000s, according to a study of enrollment trends by the Cornell University Program on Applied Demographics. As population decline continues throughout the state and region more school districts will be forced to close and consolidate their schools. Then they will be faced with the same question that West Hurley has left unanswered for nearly two decades: what do we do with an empty school building?

Fifteen years ago, the Onteora Central School District shut down West Hurley Elementary because of declining enrollment, despite the pleas of numerous parents, children and Hurley town officials. District officials told the Daily Freeman that closing the schoolwhich according to former District Superintendent Hal Rowe “averaged under 15 students to a classroom,”would ultimately save the district $561,000The buildings have sat vacant ever since, costing the district on average $44,000 a year in utilities, even as they fall into disrepair.

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The Levins building was the second of two buildings on the property, built in 1964 and closed in 2004. Photo by Megan Mirabito.

Now, after years of inactivity and a single purchase offer that quickly fell through, the newest plan to bring life back into the buildings is facing community resistance.

After going on the market in 2014, a decade after its closing, then listing with a new broker in 2016, the Onteora Central Board of Education received an offer. In February 2017 the board made a purchase agreement for $800,000 with Brooklyn-based developer Kerry Danenberg, who made a $40,000 down payment. No closing date has been set. Danenberg, under the newly formed Cedar Development East, LLC plans to turn the West Hurley school buildings into an apartment complex with 46 one-bedroom units.

Nearly 100 community members have urged the town board and school board on multiple occasions to stop this deal. In addition to their concerns about the project’s impact on their water supply, evidence surfaced of Danenberg’s reputation as a bad landlord. In 2018, Danenberg received hundreds of electrical, gas, construction and hazardous building violations and complaints on his New York City properties. Tenants of his apartments in Brooklyn formed an association to take action against him for “harassment.” A few tenants even reached out to the Town of Hurley Planning Board to warn against Danenberg.

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Cedar Development East’s proposed site plans for West Hurley Elementary. Image courtesy of Town of Hurley Citizens organization.

“The difficulty is that we have a school that’s been empty for 15 years and not exactly a long list of buyers,” District Superintendent Victoria McLaren said. In regards to the community’s concerns about Danenberg’s plans, “we don’t have authority to a tell a purchaser what he can and can’t do with a property,” she said.

In a letter she read at a March 19 school board meeting, McLaren pointed out that the sale would do two key things: “Generate tax revenue from property that has been tax-exempt,” and “Eliminate maintenance costs for a building that has not educated students in nearly two decades.”

Yet many residents of West Hurley still feel the threat Danenberg and associates pose to their community outweighs the financial burden of a school property their taxes have been supporting for years. “It’s going to be war here if it goes through,” said Cheryl Herdman, whose home of 38 years shares a property border with the former school. 

Herdman peers out the window above her kitchen sink at the skeleton of a school in her backyard, less than a football field’s length away. From that spot, and every other window at the back of her house, Herdman can see anything that goes on in front of the Levins building. Over the past few weeks she has watched trucks and other equipment come on and off the property, conducting well testing and later drilling an additional well on the property.

Herdman crosses the open floorplan kitchen-living-office space to retrieve something from one of several stacks of papers on a dining table. It is a slightly faded photo of a blond-haired little boy, knobby knees sticking out below his cotton gym shorts, standing in front of a grassy marsh. The little boy is Jim Herdman, Cheryl’s husband. And the greenery in the background, Herdman points, is where the Levins building now stands.

“Jim grew up here so he remembers when it was a pond,” Herdman said. “The world knows it was a pond. There’s pictures all over the place of what this place was. Everybody must have pictures of it,” she said.

West Hurley is a quiet hamlet of 1,900 people, full of families, like Herdman’s, who have lived there for generations. It is one of the towns forced to relocate when the Ashokan Reservoir, the deepest reservoir in the New York City watershed, was built in 1907. The move decimated West Hurley’s population, cut off the community from its neighbors, and uprooted people from land that had been in their families for generations. To many, Danenberg’s plans for development seem like the Ashokan Reservoir all over again. That is why they are so desperate to stop it.

“No. Sorry, I live here,” Herdman wanted to tell Danenberg. “This is still my home.”

 

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On a Wednesday evening, April 17, the West Hurley Firehouse filled with 50 or so residents of the Onteora School Districtsome in chairs, others standing defiantly along the walls—ready to address prospective developer Danenberg and Cedar Development East, LLC.

“They’re looking out thinking ‘what a bunch of hicks,'” a woman sitting behind me mumbled.

Nine rows of chairs were set up facing two tables, one seated with the West Hurley Town Board members, the other with Danenberg and associates. Between the crowd and the tables of anxious developers and mediating board members stood a third table, covered by a plastic tablecloth with the site proposal blueprints printed on it. On top, two cakesone chocolate-frosted, one vanillaacted as an absurd buffer. They weren’t the only sugar-coated offerings snubbed by the distressed citizens that night.

The informational meeting, organized by the West Hurley Town Board, was intended to open up discussion between the community and the potential purchaser of West Hurley Elementary. Danenberg began by introducing himself and his team, then started talking about his connection with the Hudson Valley, where he owns a second home. Soon he moved on to the long list of violations from his New York City properties. Danenberg explained the situation as uncooperative tenants essentially doing whatever they could to avoid paying rent. As he described it, tenants would immediately report minor problems, such as doors closing too slowly, directly to the building department instead of contacting him to fix the problems.

“This went on countless times. The tenants stopped paying rent. And after about three or four months they called the city every minute, every day, bombarding us with minor violations, and during that time would not allow us to fix it,” Danenberg said.

When he tried to walk the crowd through the circumstance of each individual complaint, he was quickly shut down by audience members anxious to ask questions about his plans for West Hurley. Danenberg remained silent for the remainder of the meeting, letting partner Kenan Gunduz, engineer Rich Praetorius, and his lawyers answer the crowd’s questions.

Town Supervisor John Perry began calling names from a signup sheet. When he called “Bob Bloomer,” a man leaning against the wall took a few confident steps forward in his brown leather work boots towards the developer’s table. He stopped, hands in jean pockets, and introduced himself.

“Hello everybody, I live at 360 Route 375. Again, as I said in our other meeting, I’m not a fan of anybody telling me what to do with property I pay taxes on.”

Bloomer proceeded to ask a series of hard-hitting questions, mainly about the project’s impact on the town’s water supply. “I understand you just drilled a well over here, way over 400 feet deep. What was the reason for drilling that well? Do you plan on putting water storage tanks in on these facilities? How big is the footprint of your septic system going to grow? How big is your footprint for your parking, the impervious surfaces, going to be? Where are you going to send your drainage?”

Over the course of the two-hour meeting, nearly 20 citizens got up to speak. Their primary concerns became evident: water and traffic, two problem areas the town is already struggling to manage at its current capacity. Every well in West Hurley is supported by a single aquifer. Residents say Danenberg’s apartments would bring in 50 to 100 more people, adding strain to an already at-risk water supply. The roads surrounding the school property are notoriously difficult to navigate. Roads like Cedar Street, which in Danenberg’s proposal would act as the primary entrance for tenants, are not even wide enough for two cars to drive past each other. Turning left onto Route 375, the primary highway and route to Kingston or Woodstock, is already challenging enough without traffic lights. Increased traffic flow would just make these intersections more dangerous.

By the end of the meeting there were many questions left unanswered, for both residents and the developers, but tensions remained high. “This is not the right neighborhood for your project!” someone called out above the crowd, receiving cheers of approval. “Turn it into a community center!” Cheryl Herdman hollered.

Beyond community disagreements, there are plenty of logistical reasons why it is so hard to figure out how to repurpose an empty school building.

“It takes some time to really look at a building and figure out its best use,” commercial property realtor Kevin Callahan, CCIM said. “I always try to determine what is the highest and best use for this property.” Callahan, who is managing director at Covington Commercial Realty and has nearly 20 years experience selling large properties like schools, revealed some of the biggest challenges and considerations when repurposing a school building.

  1. Zoning
    According to Callahan, when schools are in residential zones, as many are, reuse projects, such as commercial ones, might require rezoning. Or, for apartment projects, some areas might have to get a variance to deviate from zoning requirements. “Going for variance is a lengthy process and at the end of the day they might say no because, essentially, with a variance, you are going against the town’s master plan,” Callahan said.
  2. Parking
    Callahan said parking can be a big issue when it comes to repurposing a school. If properties need to add parking space, they face environmental and maintenance issues with drainage and rainwater runoff. Any additional paving decreases the amount of green space available to soak up water, increasing flood risk and water damage.
  3. Entrances
    School entrances are designed primarily to handle busing at two set times each day, not a constant flow of cars or commercial traffic. In fact, many schools have just one entrance. “Going commercial is difficult because there’s no way to get trucks into and off the property,” Callahan said.
  4. Traffic
    Any adaptive reuse project should consider its impact on local traffic. Callahan manages the Garden Street School property in Brewster, N.Y. At a town meeting someone suggested turning the property into a college. Callahan asked, “How many people here want to see 300 cars go in and out of here every day twice a day?” No hands rose. “If the school’s in the middle of a neighborhood people aren’t going to want to see a bunch more cars driving around,” Callahan said. Traffic lights and road widths also become concerns with reuse projects.
  5. NYC Department of Environmental Protection
    In addition to the environmental impact assessment required by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation’s State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQR) for new building projects, properties in the Hudson Valley may also have to deal with the NYC DEP because of the number of NYC reservoirs located in the Hudson Valley.
  6. Americans with Disabilities Act requirements
    Many old schools do not have handicap accessibility or elevators, so some structural changes would need to happen to bring the buildings up to those codes.
  7. Asbestos
    According to Callahan, most buildings built prior to the 1950s or 60s have asbestos in their floor tiles, and many school buildings were built right around this time frame. Removal of this cancer-causing toxin is required before a building can be put to use again.

These are just a few of the major considerations Callahan must make when evaluating a property for sale or lease. No one plan or project is the best way to repurpose a school. “Every property is different. Every potential use is different,” Callahan said. “Depending on the different uses there are lots of different things that come into play.”

Callahan said “it’s not an easy thing to close a school. And then it’s ‘ok now that we closed it, what do we do with it?”

uses of closed school buildings HV
Current uses of Hudson Valley school buildings closed between 2012 and 2017.

Some communities have successfully given new life to the buildings through adaptive reuse (the process of repurposing a building or site no longer in use as something different than what it was originally designed for, i.e. old factories turned into museums).

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A sign outside what once was Rosendale Elementary school shows the number of different organizations making use of the space. Photo by Megan Mirabito.

At three o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon the parking lot in front of former Rosendale Elementary School buzzes with activity. It’s not packed with a queue of cars like during parent pick-up, but there is someone coming or going every couple of minutes. The difference is, these people are here to pick up paperwork, not kindergarteners.

In June 2012 Rosendale Elementary saw its last group of students head off for summer break, never to return in the fall. The previous November, Rondout Valley Board of Education members voted unanimously to close the K-4 building at the school year’s end. In its final year, school enrollment had dropped to 208, far from its peak 360 students in the 1998-99 school year. The expense of keeping a school open for a dwindling student body drove the Board to its unpopular decision.

Now, seven years later, the building houses a variety of offices, including the town halls, police departments and courts for the Town of Rosendale and Town of Marbletown. Both communities were recognized for their creative and cooperative reuse of the elementary school, receiving the Extraordinary Partnership Award from New York Secretary of State Rossana Rosado. According to Rosendale Supervisor Jeanne Walsh, Rosendale and Marbletown were the first town halls in the state to share facilities.

When Rosendale Elementary first closed, Rondout Valley school board member David O’Halloran “had the foresight to take immediate action,” Marbletown Supervisor Rich Parete said. “He didn’t want to see it fall into disrepair.” The school building had three main wings, so O’Halloran approached the town supervisors of the three communities in Rondout Valley Central School District: Rosendale, Marbletown and Rochester. He offered each town a wing of the building as municipal office space with limited expenses. Ultimately the Town of Rochester decided the building was too far from its town limits, but Rosendale and Marbletown jumped on the opportunity.

The towns rent the building from the Rondout Valley Central School Board for a ceremonial $1 a year, utilities not included, and each pay $1,250 a month to the board for insurance and other expenses. Withstanding bonds on the school at the time of its closure prevented the school board from selling it, but in 2020 the debts will be paid and the towns plan to buy the building for a ceremonial $1 (50 cents each) in a deal that ultimately saves taxpayers money and keeps the building as an integral part of the community, the town supervisors said.

“This is absolutely the way to go,” Walsh said. “We had an undersized, very inadequate space. The departments were basically lined up next to each other, desk to desk.” According to Walsh, a new town hall would have been at least 4 to 5 million dollars. “We saved the taxpayers a lot of money,” she said. Space rental and the building’s tenants (the Arc of ULster-Greene and Rondout Valley Growers’ Association) bring in additional revenue for the district. Plus, the building provides space for meetings and recreational activities. 

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The former elementary school playground is still open for public use. Photo by Megan Mirabito.

Like hundreds of other parents, Kevin Tuttle, a Rosendale resident, was upset by the news of the school’s closing. “We were like any parent at that age, I think, not liking change. We really realized, ‘well, we’re going to still fight for it.'” His oldest daughter was a first grader at Rosendale Elementary when the closure was announced. His youngest would have attended school there, but instead attended Marbletown Elementary.

“It was such a sweet little school. It had a really cute, community vibe,” Tuttle reminisced. “The PTA there was fantastic.” 

Now, several years after their children’s difficult first-year transition to Marbletown, Tuttle and his wife have come to accept the change. Looking back, based on numbers and geography, it was inevitable that of the three elementary schools, Rosendale would be the one to close, Tuttle said. But, “it would have been worse seeing it sit dormant. It’s in use and being maintained. You know, it still looks nice,” he said.

When the school first closed, the family would go there to play on the playground and ride bikes around in the parking lot. Later his daughters attended gymnastics classes held in the gym.

“Any spaces that can create community, I’m all for,” Tuttle said.

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A bulletin board in a former classroom now used as part of the Arc of Ulster-Greene’s day habilitation program. Photo by Megan Mirabito.

The private non-profit Arc of Ulster-Greene also rents space in the building, providing essential services to more than 1,300 individuals. One of the primary services within the building is the Day Habilitation program, which provides daily activities, socialization and support for adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

Vicki Erdie, who works in the “Day-Hab” program, recalls her time at Rosendale Elementary fondly. “It’s weird working in a building that you used to go to school in. Just kind of odd. Not many people get that opportunity or experience,” Erdie said.

Erdie’s three children also attended Rosendale Elementary. Her youngest son was in third grade and daughter was in fourth grade during the final school year. News of the closing was extremely upsetting to Erdie, whose biggest concern was how the move and consolidation would affect the life skills classes and other supports her youngest children relied on at Rosendale. It was particularly difficult with her youngest son, who is autistic. “He was very stressed about the transition,” Erdie said. “There wasn’t a ton of information about how it was going to actually work.”

But the special education teachers went with the kids to Marbletown Elementary, providing some much-appreciated consistency and familiarity. “It made the transition much easier,” Erdie recalled.

Though Erdie, like many parents, still feels the loss of the tight-knit community’s beloved elementary school, she’s happy to see it in use, especially with the Arc’s programs for individuals with disabilities. “I’m glad they have this wing here to continue some of the supports that the school had, but for adults,” she said. “And I love the fact that we have the bistro” Erdie gushed. She goes to Blackboard Bistrothe school cafeteria-turned-diner“daily” during the work week for breakfast and lunch.

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A Bistro employee preps lunch for one of her regular customers. Photo by Megan Mirabito.

Blackboard Bistro, owned by the Arc, provides job experience and customer service training to adults with developmental disabilities. According to manager and head chef David Doyle, four of the seven employees are individuals who receive Arc services.

“This job is rewarding,” Doyle said. “To see someone that may not have any customer service experience not only excel at their job but become the person people come in to see for their cup of coffee or know that they know their particular order before they even ask.”

“When I arrived at the Bistro in May of 2016 we had an employee that had been working at the Bistro since its opening in March of 2016. He became the ‘face of the franchise,'” Doyle recalled. “Everyone knew his name, he knew everyone’s name, he knew what they typically ordered, made suggestions to the customers. Everyone missed him when he was not here.”

When the man was hired as a part-time employee, he was still living at home with family, Doyle said. Soon Bistro brought him on full time. “He moved out of his family home and is living on his own. He is now employed in the community. That is success for us,” Doyle said.

A few doors down from Blackboard Bistro, the sounds of a rubber ball bouncing and sneakers squeaking on a polished floor echo through the hallways of what is now Rondout Municipal Center. The gym is pungent with ripe sweat. Six young men are finishing a pick-up game, 3-on-3. They jog back and forth between the two hoops a few times before one, wearing a backwards red hat, confidently calls “game” as he takes a 3-pointer that bounces off the rim. The players casually retreat to the wooden bleachers lining the wall of the gymnasium.

The Rondout Valley High School students—five seniors and one junior—come play after school “like four days a week,” the red-hatted one says.

They said there is nowhere else to play during the winter months.

“Not unless you want to drive up to Kingston” one who vaguely resembles Chad Michael Murray says. Their high school gym is “always being used” and the YMCA of Kingston and Ulster County is about a 25-minute drive from Rondout Valley High School. The boys only have to drive 10 minutes to Rondout Municipal Center after school.

Though the building’s primary functions revolve around the municipal offices of Rosendale and Marbletown as well as those of private non-profit Arc of Ulster-Greene, it has also filled a community need for indoor recreational space. In the evenings the former school’s gymnasium is used for other recreational activities, such as children’s gymnastics and volleyball.

“It really has become a community center,” Rosendale Supervisor Jeanne Walsh said.

What started out as an extremely upsetting and stressful change in the community wound up saving the district money and filling major needs, some that were not even apparent. All because of the creative initiative of a man who did not want to see his community’s school rot away. What do we do with an empty school building? Not all communities will have the same answer, or any answer at all.

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