Stay in School Forever

Something funny is happening to Atlanta's old school buildings. People are living in them. Already three public schools have been recycled into loft apartments, another is being developed and a fifth is up for sale and may join the trend.
October 2002
By Otis White  |  Contributor
President of Civic Strategies Inc.

Something funny is happening to Atlanta's old school buildings. People are living in them. Already three public schools have been recycled into loft apartments, another is being developed and a fifth is up for sale and may join the trend. What's the appeal of living in a schoolhouse? Architecturally, older schools tend to be interesting buildings, with decorative columns and carvings. Then, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution points out, "there's the 'wow' factor." One tenant in the old Roosevelt High School lives in what was once the gym, where part of the free-throw lane forms a pattern on his living room floor. At another old school, a tenant has a chalkboard on her wall. In the hallway outside are the lockers. There are other advantages: Classrooms are about 1,000 square feet, a good size for apartments, and unlike factories, schools were located in residential neighborhoods, so persuading tenants to rent a loft is not so difficult. As one developer explained, "They have big windows, high ceilings--cool, funky space that we can leave wide open--in neat little trendy village settings in urban centers."


Like a lot of cities, Miami is trying to make waiting for the bus a little nicer, so it is installing 1,500 handsome black steel benches around the city, replacing the ugly cement and wood ones that bus riders used for years. There's only one problem. It gets hot in Miami in the summer, and the black steel radiates heat like a frying pan. "I can sit there, but not for too long," said one woman, standing next to a new bench. "They are not comfortable at all, not in the hot sun." How could Miami officials have made such a blunder? Even they are mystified. "I know it was discussed by the planning people who evaluated it," said one official. "I don't know how they came to the final resolution that it wasn't going to be a problem." So how do you cool down 1,500 hot seats? According to outdoor furniture makers, you coat it with something called Plastisol, which insulates the metal. In nearby Miami Shores, public works officials say they've used Plastisol-coated benches without any problems. "As far as frying people," said a Miami Shores official, "we've never heard of anyone having that complaint." Good news: The company installing Miami's benches, not the city, will pay for the coating.


One thing that may be holding back Dallas' ambitious downtown redevelopment plans: very little of downtown is owned by locals. More than two-thirds of downtown's property value is held by companies based outside the area, according to the Dallas Morning News. That's a problem because it's hard to get absentee landlords involved in efforts to pump up the area--and may account for the sad condition of downtown. "For 20 or 25 years, there has been no cohesive group whose members worked together to advance downtown's interests," said one business leader. "Even the habit of thinking about the center of the city has been broken." And since Dallas has depended so heavily on private-sector initiative, downtown has been forgotten. "This is not Chicago," he went on. "We don't have...a century-old tradition of public investment." In the old days, one locally based landlord said, the business barons ate lunch at the same clubs, played golf together and made plans for downtown in between. "If the heads of those banks wanted something done, they'd just call their accounting firms and say, you're going to contribute this much. Then they'd call their law firms and say, you're going to contribute this much." You can't make big decisions that way with out-of-town firms controlling the downtown skyline. To get these firms involved, he said, first "you have to educate them. It takes a lot more effort." So who owns downtown Dallas? Rich Europeans, out-of-state banks and a California pension fund, the newspaper says.


Trust me. This isn't as goofy an idea as it sounds at first. San Francisco hopes to launch the world's largest ferry fleet by 2015, with 44 ferries cruising back and forth across San Francisco Bay. All it needs is the state legislature's blessing and the approval of the region's voters to spend millions each year subsidizing the ferries. (Ten year cost: $662 million.) Why isn't this idea all wet? Look at a map of the Bay Area and you'll notice a lot of water dividing Alameda and Contra Costa counties to the east from Marin County to the north and San Francisco to the west. Look closer and you'll see few bridges between these heavily populated places. Yes, there's Bay Area Rapid Transit, which runs rail service under the bay, but service is limited. Build more rail tunnels? Awfully expensive. More bridges? Environmentalists would leap in front of the bulldozers. When you eliminate those, what it leaves is... riding the waves. As it is, San Francisco already has a number of ferries, which carry 4 million passengers a year, up 50 percent since 1995. With a much larger fleet, officials promise, 12 million could be commuting aboard high-speed, environmentally friendly boats by 2025.