Get the Rehab Habit!

“Recycling,” the buzzword for these environmentally conscious times, extends beyond sorting plastic and glass from paper. Now, it includes shopping malls, strip shopping centers, warehouses, manufacturing facilities and other buildings left empty in the wake of the inconsistent economy. Reusing these fallow spaces for schools, where land for new buildings is at a premium or nonexistent, is a steadily growing trend.

Alternative school spaces also are finding homes in buildings housing ongoing concerns, intermingling students with business and the arts in a daily, carnival-like atmosphere. Locations chosen seem to be limited only by the imagination.

Not only do these alternative spaces provide schools with needed learning space to accommodate expanding and shifting populations at potentially more affordable prices, they offer students unique settings and more real-life learning opportunities -- more than can be found in the sheltered environment of traditional school buildings. The predominant challenge is taking those spaces designed for other uses, and making them user-friendly schools.

School Days at the (World’s) Fair

What originally was constructed as an armory in Seattle, Wash., in the 1930s, became the food pavilion at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. The building then became Seattle Center, an art-deco structure housing a wide array of eateries, offices and shops. It is centrally located to sites such as the Pacific Science Center, the Experience Music Project, the Children’s Museum, the Fun Forest Amusement Park, the Seattle Skateboard Park and the Space Needle.

By fall of 2002, Seattle Center also will be home to the Center School, an alternative high school of the Seattle School District. The school will occupy an upper floor of the building, overlooking the building’s atrium food court.

According to Lorne McConachie, a principal of Seattle-based Bassetti Architects, Center School resulted from lobbying by parent groups for smaller, more urban school locations. Many of Seattle’s older inner-city schools had been closed because of population shifts to the suburbs.

The Seattle Center location, McConachie says, meets several needs. The center is located near some of the city’s older, less affluent neighborhoods; the area has an integrated population; and it provides numerous learning opportunities. It also will offer a more intimate learning environment to its projected 300-student population.

In the approximately 200,000-square-foot building, Center School will occupy only 10,000-15,000 square feet, which previously served as part of the office quarters for Seattle Center management and costume storage space for the Seattle Opera. The school will have classroom, office, conference and storage space. The estimated cost of the project is $2 million.

Notably lacking will be a library, physical education space and a cafeteria. McConachie says all the classrooms will have either wired or wireless Internet connections which students can use to obtain information. Otherwise, they can take the monorail from Seattle Center to the public library downtown.

Physical education classes will make use of the variety of facilities around the center, such as the Skateboard Park and sports arenas, through working use agreements. Also, students will either bring lunches or avail themselves of the center’s food court, possibly at reduced rates. McConachie adds that he envisions students spending free periods studying or interacting with other students and visitors in the Center atrium.

The theaters and galleries in the arts-rich Seattle Center area can offer unique opportunities for the students by interfacing with what’s already there, McConachie explains. All in all, he foresees more project-based learning and expects the school to use a number of educational models.

Construction on the school is expected to begin in the fall of this year, but the project faces any number of unusual challenges. Since Seattle Center is a going concern, all construction work will have to be done at night to minimize the impact on the existing businesses.

McConachie says that the matter of acoustics is being addressed and significant soundproofing is planned to deal with the noise of a site as busy as Seattle Center. Security in such a sizable facility also is an issue. While Seattle Center has its own security system, he says there are plans for an adult receptionist to screen persons entering the school.

However, the largest issues in the school’s construction have to do with safety. Building codes have changed since the Center’s construction, but no updating was required because the structure was “grandfathered” under its previous use.

Construction of the school will substantively change its use and, therefore, require the premises to be brought up to current codes, including meeting Americans with Disabilities Act access requirements. McConachie says they’re still in negotiations with the city as to how much structural upgrading will be required.

When the school officially opens, it will start with just freshman and sophomore classes, then add a grade for each of the following two years. This fall, however, the Center School will begin classes in leased space near the Seattle Center.

Kids Go to the Mall

Seeing children at a shopping mall isn’t all that unusual, but who expects them to go there to learn? That is the case with the 450,000-square-foot Maryvale Mall in central Phoenix, Ariz.

Built as an outdoor regional mall back in 1958, it underwent numerous changes, including becoming an enclosed mall, by 1972. Yet Maryvale Mall was almost empty when its original developer and owner, John F. Long, made Phoenix’s Cartwright School District an offer it couldn’t refuse.

According to Ron Peters, chair of the board of Phoenix-based BPLW Architects and Engineers, Inc., school construction space in central Phoenix was virtually nonexistent. Long offered to sell the district 330,000 square feet of the mall and surrounding grounds at an unbelievably low price, if the property would be used for school space.

The catch? The school district could not tear down the mall to rebuild. They had to use the existing building.

Cartwright School District is located in one of the poorest economic areas, with an approximately 70 percent Hispanic population, and some of the worst schools in the state, says Peters. With no bonding capacity to provide funds for new schools, the district filed suit against the state, challenging Arizona’s funding methods. The purchase and redevelopment of the Maryvale Mall property was funded by the state’s School Facilities Board, which was created in response to those legal challenges.

Two schools were created on the property -- the 1,000-student Marc T. Adkinson Middle School and the 600-student Bret Tarver Elementary School. A 10,000-square-foot police substation and community center is located in the building and, Peters says, a “transition” school is being developed to house students from other schools while their buildings are undergoing repairs and renovation.

Peters says the schools cost approximately $65 per square foot to construct, for a total of about $16 million. The middle school opened in the fall of 2000 and the elementary school will open in the fall of this year.

This building also presented some novel construction dilemmas. As in most shopping malls, the ceilings were too high to be usable for the schools, Peters explains, requiring the installation of lower, suspended ceilings. The upside, however, was that they were able to run all the mechanicals, including computer wiring, in the ceiling space.

In addition, classrooms were designed to take advantage of existing skylights to allow for natural sunlight since there are no windows. Hallway congestion isn’t a problem because the extra-wide hallways were maintained.

Peters says they tried to reuse the concrete flooring system, but because of the successive additions and changes that were made to the mall, the floor was unusable and had to be replaced.

The elementary school has traditional classrooms, while the middle school is set up in neighborhoods. Each school has its own cafeteria, but both use one communal kitchen for preparation. The schools also have separate libraries, but use one media operations center.

Three-dimensional murals on the corridor walls make the environment a teaching tool, Peters says. In the elementary school, they brought the outside inside, he adds. The main corridor is set up as a streetscape, with a road, crosswalks, traffic lights and signs, to teach students how to cross the street safely.

Peters says large sections of asphalt parking lot were torn up to create playgrounds and ball fields, but notes that the asphalt removed was recycled as sub-base material on the grounds.

An old ice hockey rink on the property was made into a district-wide physical education facility, and an old movie theater was turned into a 600-seat performing arts theater for the district.

New Wave or Just a Ripple?

Both McConachie and Peters acknowledge that adapting old buildings for new school uses is emerging as a nationwide trend that is gaining momentum.

According to McConachie, while alternative space schools won’t wholly replace traditional school buildings, there are more small school opportunities opening up, with districts “looking to integrate schools into more ‘real world’ experiences.”

“I think whenever you have the opportunity to reclaim old buildings for school space, you should jump on it,” Peters says.

In times of tight funds, recycling can afford districts an alternative to high-priced property and sky-high construction costs. “You can get some of these properties for a song,” Peters remarks.

Robbin Rittner-Heir is a Dayton-based freelance writer with experience in education issues.

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