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Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011 06:41 am

Two schools for the price of one

Is there an alternative to tearing down Enos Elementary?


Enos Elementary School

On Sept. 11, the District 186 board announced that it would cancel classes forever at Enos Elementary School. The board approved plans to demolish the aging building on the north side and replace it with a new building on the site. As was reported by our Rachel Wells (“Plan to preserve Enos Elementary,” Jan. 6, 2011), Daniel Mulcahy of Dankor Development Co. has proposed a trade to the 186 board – the district gives him the four-acre Enos property and he gives the district a six-acre site plot nearby on which a new school might be built. Not tearing Enos down could save the District $400,000 in demolition costs, says Dankor.  And since Dankor would then convert the school into the centerpiece of a new apartment development, the present Enos school building would be put onto the tax rolls, enriching local taxing bodies (including District 186) by nearly $100,000 a year.

Sounds like a deal, but the board didn’t think so. (To be fair, Mulcahy’s proposal probably needs more time in the oven before it is ready to serve as a formal offer.) Said board president Bill Looby to the State Journal-Register, “We really need to upgrade our facilities and move forward.” We will give Mr. Looby the benefit of a large doubt and assume that the phrase “move forward” is not politician-speak for “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.” It would have helped if he had explained how accepting a swap for a bigger lot would prevent the district from building its new school in accordance with its facilities plan? Maybe the clincher was the fact that the old Enos site is already paved – that counts for a lot in Springfield.

In defense of the board’s raze-and-replace plan, Mr. Looby said that he “hasn’t heard any other complaints about tearing down Enos.” One hopes that the number of people who complain about its demolition is not the criterion by which the 186 board decides whether one of its buildings stands or falls. That is a politician’s criterion, not that of a responsible public steward. Such a steward would ask people who know about a building’s architectural and historic merit before deciding to rubble it.

The Springfield Historic Sites Commission wasn’t asked, but it sent a letter to the 186 board asking to halt demolition of the school until the board investigates options for its reuse. Mulcahy has insisted all along that the Enos building shouldn’t be destroyed because it is potentially historic. (He would; a qualifying historic structure can qualify for tax credits toward its rehabilitation.) Whether that claim has merit I cannot say. There can’t be much of the original – that is, the 1896 – structure intact after decades of cheese-paring forced on school boards by cheapskate taxpayers.  

In some ways the Enos school recalls the case of Hay-Edwards School. In the late 1990s, District 186 declared that vacant school to be surplus to its requirements. A developer packaged a deal under which a special purpose entity entered into a long-term ground lease with the school district. The district then contracted with the developer to renovate the school as office space, and lease it back to the school district under a 20-year, tax-exempt lease-purchase; the district in turn subleased the building to the state. The district’s financial obligations under the lease-purchase were covered by the state’s rents, it remained the owner of the property and will realize millions from the lease-purchase and the ground lease. Even a District 186 student could see that those numbers added up for the district.

As a large structure within the Medical District, Enos would seem to have similar redevelopment potential. While it is not the board’s  job to develop such proposals, it is well within their brief to encourage people to develop them for the board’s consideration. Why not issue a Request For Proposal as it did in the case of Hay-Edwards? Developers have converted hundreds of such schools into housing across the country. Two Illinois projects that come to mind are Libertyville’s Central School (part of the small-house School Street development) and the Gregory Schoolhouse Lofts on Columbia Street in Champaign.

The school board is within its rights to complain that they are in the education business, not the preservation business. But they are citizens too, and as citizens they are also in the Springfield business. The school board that approved the original Enos wanted to build schools that the community could be proud of, schools that embodied the belief that teaching its children was a noble undertaking that required noble buildings to do it in. The civic-minded thing for its successor board to do is explore the possibilities of not only putting up a new Enos but keeping the old one standing, and in the process help revive a moribund neighborhood for the good of the town.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

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