Back to School: Creative Ways to Repurpose Buildings for Education
From The Buxton Co
Healthcare isn’t the only industry moving into nontraditional spaces like department stores, malls, and other retail centers. For many education organizations, the opportunity to rezone and repurpose an existing space is both more sustainable and more budget friendly than constructing a new building.
This kind of adaptive reuse is becoming more and more popular as the pandemic leaves commercial vacancies in its wake. This trend presents commercial real estate property owners and investors with new tenant opportunities to fill tough vacancies.
In honor of the approaching school year, we looked at some creative ways organizations have repurposed nontraditional spaces—like malls and office buildings—for education programs.
The first, and perhaps most obvious, example of a nontraditional education tenant is a school. Department stores, big box stores, and other retail centers are large enough to accommodate a school’s population—even when social distancing—and they’re often centrally located and have ample parking. Here are a few types of schools to consider.
When Burlington High School in Vermont discovered unsafe levels of toxic chemicals in their building, the district converted the town’s former Macy’s store into a temporary schoolhouse in just ten weeks.
Gem Prep: Pocatello ran out of space in their current building and moved into an old Sears. Not only did this give them the capacity to accept more students, but it also allowed them to build a gymnasium and cafeteria.
Whether a traditional trade school, or one meant for high schoolers, like the Montgomery Preparatory Academy for Career Technologies in Alabama, vocational schools are another option. IMPACT set up hands‑on workshops designed to look like real workspaces in an empty JCPenney, allowing high school students to graduate with certifications in welding, HVAC, industrial maintenance, public safety, and more.
Austin Community College’s Highland campus in Austin, Texas, was once an indoor shopping mall. Now, the college is proud of its “sustainable, adaptive, community‑minded reuse.”
In 41 malls owned by the Simon Property Group, Simon Youth Academies partner with local school districts to offer alternative, more personalized classes to keep kids from dropping out due to other circumstances like homelessness, bullying, health issues, and parenthood.
Libraries are another good candidate to fill large retail spaces. Most mall department stores and standalone big box stores have high ceilings and large parking lots—both of which are important to house something as expansive as a library. These types of real estate also already have all the necessary utility hookups ready to go, making conversion easier.
However, before you sign a library as a tenant, there’s one important question to consider: are your property’s floors strong enough to carry the weight of tons of books? The concrete slab floors found in most box stores are, but that might not always be the case and could make adapting the building difficult.
Another option more suitable for smaller spaces is not to have a full library, but a mini branch in an easily accessible, high traffic area. For example, the Frisco Public Library in Frisco, Texas, has a small‑format space with books, public computers, returns, and pickup lockers at the local mall.
Finally, it’s becoming more common for childcare centers—daycares, preschools, and after school programs—to be built in office buildings. These centers can either be tenants themselves, or they can be part of another organization that offers childcare as an amenity for employees. Having childcare available in office buildings makes it more accessible for parents who might work close by, or even in the same building.
However, childcare centers have certain needs most office buildings don’t meet, such as outdoor play areas, large open spaces, and child‑friendly pick‑up and drop‑off areas separate from other employees’ entrances. It can be expensive to add these features, but given how competitive the job market is, an amenity like this might help a corporation attract top talent.
For example, the One Glenlake Parkway office building in Atlanta has a 23,000 square foot Bright Horizons childcare center that serves people in the building, as well as some of the other corporate offices nearby. Though some of the building’s other tenants were hesitant at first, there is now a waiting list for the daycare.
The Bottom Line
There are countless ways to repurpose vacant commercial spaces, either for educational needs or for other uses. From schools and childcare, to libraries, to medical office buildings and multifamily residences, the options are endless.
To learn about other ways to revitalize empty commercial spaces, check out our blog, “Trends in Repurposing Vacant Department Stores.”
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