Vacant Pittsburgh school buildings see new life

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When the 2011-2012 school year began late last month, Hill District residents might have been surprised to see the doors of the Robert Lee Vann Elementary School building open once again. Over the summer, the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh purchased the school after it was closed by the Pittsburgh Public School District more than one year ago in June 2010.

The Vann building was one of two sales and one lease agreement finalized by the PPS in 2011. Over the past five years, 10 schools have been sold in an effort to decrease financial strain from district spending on vacant buildings, $1,890,878 in total custodial and utility costs.

brentley
MARK BRENTLEY

“We all know that a building left empty and unused deteriorates so it’s loses value over time. Most neighborhoods would prefer that we get a building in use in some sort of way. Empty buildings can cause problems in neighborhoods,” said PPS Superintendant Linda Lane. “In the district as we try to address some of our financial problems, this is one of the things we’re looking at.”

Currently there are 18 closed buildings available for sale of which 15 are vacant. A list of the schools available for sale can be found through the district’s Website.

“It’s not like none of them have been sold; a number have but we’re still sitting on a significant number of buildings,” Lane said. “We’re hoping that there may be people in the community that have an interest or a use that a facility could serve. I don’t expect that we’ll get offers on all of them.”

This year, the Vann school building is again filled with elementary school children, approximately 300 as a result of a merger of St. Benedict the Moor and St. Agnes School in Oakland.

“The former St. Benedict the Moor school was full. We had looked at the possibility of moving or adding on to the building but then we came across the Vann building that was vacant and available,” said Father Chris Stubna, secretary for Catholic education in the Diocese. “We were excited because it’s right in the heart of the Hill District and our commitment has been to really provide an educational presence to that community.”

In partnership with the Extra Mile Foundation, the Diocese will continue to provide subsidized Catholic school tuition to African-American children in low-income families from across the city. The Diocese purchased the building for $350,000.

“Among educators you sort of know what buildings are being used. We have a long partnership with PPS so we’re kind of aware of what’s going on,” Stubna said. “It seemed to be a better idea to use a building that was relatively close. We had to do some minor renovations, but we were really able to move into the building fairly well.”

Also reopening its doors for the 2011-2012 school year is the former Columbus Middle School building in the North Side. The building is being leased by Propel Northside Inc. to serve as a K-8 charter school.

This year the PPS also finalized the sale of the former Connelley Technical Institute in the Hill District for an estimated $200,000. The building purchased by Pittsburgh Green Innovators Inc., which closed in 2004, is slated to be a hub for green technology.

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