From School to Senior Housing: Property Redevelopment Transforms a Neighborhood|
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The property redevelopment of a former school into affordable senior housing shows the positive impact a strong project can have on a community.
For decades, the Henry A. Hunt Elementary School was an important touchpoint in Georgia’s East Macon neighborhood. It opened in 1955 and served thousands of students before closing in 2003. The school then sat empty for more than a decade, eventually becoming covered with graffiti and overgrown with weeds.
“Even with the condition it was in, the community was still particular about what they wanted to come into the community,” said Anthony Hayes, president of In-Fill Housing Inc., a non-profit housing developer created by the Macon Housing Authority.
The school was initially purchased by a developer who wanted to raze the existing buildings and put up a convenience store and gas station. But that plan stalled amid strong opposition from the community.
In-Fill Housing stepped in to buy the property in November 2014, proposing a property redevelopment plan to convert the former school into the Hunt School Village, a 60-unit affordable housing development for seniors 62 and older.
“We immediately solicited feedback from local residents,” Hayes said. “The community fell in love with our plans and supported us the whole way.”
Repurposing a Community Landmark
The redevelopment provided needed affordable housing, but it also removed a blighted property and replaced it with a development the community could be proud of.
Additionally, it preserved an essential part of local heritage. The school was named after Henry A. Hunt, a noted African-American educator. The Hunt school played a prominent role in teaching students in a predominantly African-American neighborhood.
Photo of the former Henry A. Hunt School in East Macon, Georgia (courtesy of In-Fill Housing Inc.)
The project involved adapting and reusing parts of the school — including the administration offices, auditorium and cafeteria — to create amenities and common areas for residents. Two new three-story residential buildings, each containing 30 units, were also built.
Hunt School Village is currently at full occupancy, with a substantial wait list.
“There was a need for that type of housing, and there also had not been any significant multifamily development in that area of town in more than 25 years,” Hayes said.
A crowd turned out for the grand opening in July 2017. Such events typically attract 20 or 30 people, but more than 200 celebrated the Hunt School Village, Hayes said.
It’s still early to gauge the impact Hunt School Village has had in revitalizing the neighborhood. But Hayes said homeowners are taking noticeably more pride in maintaining their properties. People hope the redevelopment will create a larger ripple effect.
Advice for Housing Developers
In-Fill Housing has a record of other renovation projects, including restoring the former Pearl Stephens Elementary School in 2008. It converted the Macon landmark into an affordable apartment building for seniors.
Photo of Hunt School Village in Macon, Georgia (courtesy of In-Fill Housing Inc.)
A few bits of advice from lessons learned:
- Obtain community support early on. In the case of the Hunt School Village, In-Fill Housing reached out to key stakeholders ranging from neighbors and elected officials to the school’s very active alumni association.
- In-Fill communicated plans and progress throughout the entire process and solicited input on how to incorporate components and memorabilia from the former school into the new project. That helped ensure everyone was invested in the project, noted Hayes.
- Put together a strong team, including architects, accountants, designers and consultants. Development teams often include a mix of public and private partners. As with any project, choose trusted partners who are aligned on goals and share a common vision.
“When you are doing these types of projects, you are always going to uncover things you just could not have foreseen,” Hayes said. “Having the right team helps you to navigate those challenges to ensure the character of what you are trying to develop truly comes out in the end.”
The Henry A. Hunt School supported the children of the East Macon community for many decades, and now the Hunt School Village can help area seniors — and the local community — for many years to come.
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