Flint MI—Flint school officials have begun exploratory discussions about selling and redeveloping the district’s 22 abandoned proprieties. No decisions have been made, but one development firm, informally known as the Harvard Group, hopes to repurpose and restore the Central High School-Whittier Classical Academy campus.
Flushing native Ian Shetron, alongside two colleagues who wish to be unnamed, is spearheading the potential project. The goal is adaptative reuse, the process of reusing an existing building for a purpose other than originally intended.
“We’ve modeled the site as a mixed-use redevelopment. So, it’s got residential and commercial capability… It’s a beautiful, historically significant structure or structures, I should say…They’re architecturally significant [and] frankly they’re Flint landmarks. And part of this project is being able to say that we preserved these landmarks,” he said.
The idea started in Shetron’s economic development class at Harvard University.
“The main thrust of the class was coming up with a catalytic economic development in an American city, any American city. I came with the idea of Flint, and I was surprised to see that my group members were amenable to that. And so, it kicked off over a year of research and study,” he said.
When it was time to transition from the academic to the real world, Shetron and his partners took a trip to Flint.
“We had selected Flint [but] we didn’t know what we were going to do yet for the project. And when we drove by Flint Central, right away [my partner] was like ‘What’s that?’…He was bowled over by fact that such a big, beautiful thing like that was in Flint and nothing was happening with it,” he said.
The 28.5-acre campus is home to the former Flint Central High School and Whittier Classical Academy, both built in the early 1920s. Flint Schools closed the buildings in the summer of 2009 due to financial hardships and low student enrollment. The buildings have been rotting away ever since.
Shetron and his colleagues toured the campus in Oct. 2020. Due to its crumbling state, he said there’s some urgency to push the redevelopment forward.
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“Right now, Flint Central-Whittier is deteriorating, and it’s deteriorating pretty fast. This cold winter is no help…Soon there won’t be any option. The only option will be demolition. So, we’re trying to come in before that is inevitable,” he said.
However, a complete teardown may be unavoidable depending on the buildings’ current condition. In the upcoming weeks, an engineer will assess the property to determine the vitality of the project. If all goes well, The Harvard Group will submit a formal proposal to the board for consideration. The district will not have to pay for the assessment, Shetron said.
“We want to make sure that the buildings can take a preservation at the at the price points that we’ve generally outlined in our financial model. If our estimates are wildly off for some reason, we don’t think that they are, but if for some reason they were, we’d be having a different conversation… But either way, the school district is going to learn something, or they’re going to get something out of it,” he said.
As part of the adaptive reuse model, Flint Schools will not spend a dime for the project, Shetron said.
“This is something that we’re doing privately. It’s no cost to the school district. In redeveloping the campus, we hope that it’s a win for everyone, including schools…We want to drive that value back into the school district. If we’re able to move forward, that’s what’s going to happen.”
The campus also includes a swimming pool, a musical and mechanical building, a powerhouse, a field house, and other sports fields. While it’s still too soon for conceptional drawings or detailed plans, Shetron said he presents old photos during meetings with potential investors.
“I got a hold of a bunch of old photographs of Flint Central and the campus just after it was completed in the 1920s. And if you want an idea of what we plan for it to look like, those are your best bet.”
This isn’t the first time Flint Schools has considered redevelopment for the site. Just after the buildings closed in 2009, school officials had hoped to reopen Flint Central High with a proposed $27 million renovation. In 2016, the district commissioned Flint-based THA Architects Engineers to develop renderings for a new high school and middle school, an estimated $78.5 million project.
The plans fizzled out due to budget cuts and dwindling enrollment numbers—an issue still at play today.
During two budget workshops held on Jan. 28 and on Feb. 4, board members learned the district may have to close three elementary schools as part of a deficit elimination plan.
Which elementary schools will close and how the district will sell off the vacant properties has yet to be determined.
“The issue with selling some of the other buildings isn’t necessarily that you’re looking for buyers and things like that. It’s that you’re looking for a buyer, who not only can pay the purchase price, but also has some level of sustainability,” Casey Lester said, former president of the Flint Schools Board of Education.
Sustainability is exactly what Shetron imagines for Central-Whittier.
“What we have envisioned is s a grander plan than just saying, ‘Okay, we’re going to put some apartments in there.’ We really see it as something that that fills a hole, fills a need in the neighborhood and really for the whole community, because we want the campus to be an extension of the educational, artistic, and cultural vibe,” Shetron said.