Recycling Schools

  • Joel Landy (center) bought the Malcolm X Academy in midtown Detroit. He's rehabbing the school and turning it into a music space, with areas for rehearsals, a recording studio and a concert venue. Ben Christenson (left) and one of his band mates talk with Landy about renting some space. (Photo by Jennifer Guerra)

A lot of Michigan’s big cities are shrinking. People have left the state to find work. Others have moved their families to the suburbs. As Jennifer Guerra reports… that has left a lot of urban school districts with empty school buildings. But instead of tearing the buildings down, some districts want to recycle them:

Detroit Public School real estate page

How the Lansing school district reuses its empty schools

Article on school reuse around the country

Another school Joel Landy bought and turned into a theater


The Detroit Public School district is sitting on more than 80 empty school buildings. Nearly all of them are smack dab in the middle of neighborhoods, so they’re huge eye sores. Not to mention it costs the district a lot of money to secure the buildings so no one breaks in.

So to drum up interest in all that unused real estate, the district held a one-day workshop for people to learn the ins and outs of how to buy or lease a school building.
One of the people there was Issac DeGraffenfiel. He wants to open a community center and day care facility…and he thinks repurposing a school building to do that is the way to go:

“Most school buildings have a gym. And most kids that I know in the inner city love to play basketball. So one way you get kids to come: Say hey you do this, you get to play basketball. JG: Would you be playing with them? Of course, I’ll try my best.” (laughs)

Detroit isn’t the only district trying to cash in on its real estate. The Lansing School District has sold more than 20 school buildings over the last couple decades, mostly to small tech companies. In Grand Rapids, a company converted the district’s old Union High School into fancy new condos.

Reusing and repurposing old school buildings is a win-win for a few reasons. One, it helps struggling school districts earn some money. Two, it’s generally cheaper to rehab an old building than to build a new one from scratch, and three…

HOPKINS: “There’s nothing more sustainable than an existing building. Flat out. Period.”

Gene Hopkins is an architect in Ann Arbor. He’s been practicing historic preservation for 35 years, and he says old school buildings have some great features:

“Lots of natural daylight, double hung windows that open for natural ventilation and thick masonry walls for keeping the heat in and for radiating the coolness in the summer.”

True, it can take a lot of time and a lot of money to recycle old building materials, but it’s usually cheaper than buying all brand new materials.

Take Joel Landy, for example. He bought a vacant school building in Detroit for $1,000 in 1991. The place was a dump. It had been empty for 20 years. There were actually trees growing on the first floor.

To rehab it, he spent seven million dollars. He says it would’ve cost him 10 to 20 million dollars to build a new school.

Landy’s most recent purchase is Malcolm X Academy in midtown Detroit. He’s going with a music theme for the building: rehearsal space, recording studio, even a music venue…

“It was a little slow to start, but every day I get two or three calls, sometimes 10 and every day I show two or three people the building. JG: You’ve got somebody here today, right? Yes, there’s a couple guys who have a rock and roll band and they’re looking for a room where they can practice, do some recording, and we’re going to meet them right now…”

We’re meeting Ben Christenson and one of his band mates. They’re looking at a couple rooms on the second floor…

“We’re interested for sure. We want to ask about 209, that room looks pretty cool, too…”

The building can hold 50 tenants. So far Landy has signed up seven. Meantime, he’s got some ideas for other people who might want to reuse a school building:

“They’re perfect for assisted living or loft living. In fact you could probably store cars in a school.”

Seems pretty appropriate for a place called the Motor City.

For the Environment Report, I’m Jennifer Guerra.

The Detroit Public School district has a list of all available school buildings up for sale or lease…but you won’t find any prices listed. That’s because the district wants you to make the first offer.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.