Schools can be the nexus of a neighborhood, a community space and reference point for kids and parents alike. In Buffalo, New York, a new adaptive reuse project that opens today aims to turn an unused elementary school into something even more central to the neighborhood and its future.
The transformation of School 77 into what local leaders have called an “energy democracy” building—complete with community space for seniors and children, offices for nonprofits, as well as low-income housing and a massive community solar project—demonstrates how classrooms can be given a second life, and new mission.
“We operate from the theory of change,” says Rahwa Ghirmatzion, a former Eritrean refugee and executive director of PUSH Buffalo, the group that led the charge to renovate the school. “This was community led, driven, and controlled because we believe those closest to the problem are also closest to the solution.”
The drive to turn an 80,000-square-foot-plus public school on the city’s west side began in the winter of 2014. Community groups such as PUSH Buffalo (People United for Sustainable Housing) saw potential in this unused structure and wanted the neighborhood’s blessing to move forward. PUSH had already focused on the surrounding west side, having spent close to a decade turning it into a Green Development Zone through a combination of sustainable community development, policy advocacy, and community organizing.
For months, organizers passed out comment cards to the neighbors asking for feedback on the plans. Once organizers collected more than 600 responses, they presented them to the local city councilman, David Rivera, and then the Department of Planning. Throughout the buildout, fundraising, and design of what would eventually become a $15 million renovation, PUSH and other groups, including Hester Street, a urban planning firm, and Stieglitz Snyder Architecture, stayed in close contact with neighbors.
“Often with projects like these, locals are engaged at the beginning, and they don’t hear from you again until the ribbon cutting,” says Ghirmatzion. “We were interested in the time between the application and ribbon cutting, and how interaction could improve the school.”
For Ghirmatzion, the neighborhood around School 77 and the building itself represent what Buffalo is and can be, as much as what Buffalo was. An former industrial, Rust Belt town connected to the Erie Canal, and once one of the country’s leading cities, Buffalo has suffered from decades of economic difficulties. But over time, the city and its demographics have changed. Now one of the leading cities for resettlement in the nation, the city, and the area surrounding School 77 in particular, is home to an eclectic array of refugees and immigrant—more than 60 languages are spoken in Buffalo today—as well as significant economic challenges. Median household income in the 25-square-block Green Zone is $20,000, with 40 percent of residents and 60 percent of children living in poverty.
It’s important to create these kind of community hubs to help new and old residents, and help provide the tools to create a “self-determined community,” says Ghirmatzion.
“This is healing work,” she says. “There is a lot of trauma in these communities, deeply embedded trauma from what these immigrants and refugees have been through. We’re trying to create a more interconnected, holistic solution.”
School 77 took the community’s requests, basically and “all-of-the-above” approach, to heart. The school offers a community inside the community, with 30 affordable, energy-efficient apartments for low-income Buffalo seniors, and myriad recreation and gathering spaces. The refurbished gymnasium hosts basketball games, yoga classes, and job training sessions. Three local nonprofits—PUSH Buffalo, Peace of the City, a program for at-risk youth—and the Ujima Theater Company will move into new office inside.
Finally, a 64-kw community solar array on the building’s roof will provide cheap, renewable energy, an important benefit considering the surrounding area’s older housing stock and elevated energy costs during the winter months. Residents in the affordable apartments inside can subscribe to solar to cut down on energy bills, and community members will be able to manage and spend money raised from the 200-panel solar array, providing an extra source of funds for additional community projects. While its famous for snow storms, Buffalo actually has as many sunny days as Tampa, Florida.
Installed by workers hired from the surrounding community, the solar array will become another asset to help bolster the neighborhood’s development.
“We’re trying to bring back a level of confidence and healing in the community, that they can do it themselves,” says Ghirmatzion.