When the Pittsburgh Board of Education voted to close the iconic Schenley High School in 2008, it claimed an extensive asbestos problem would have cost nearly $100 million, making renovation of the structure economically infeasible.
|NOWHERE TO GO—Sports trophies and sweatshirts that were still piled in an office at Schenley High School four years later were discovered by Councilman Bill Peduto during an April visit. (Photo by Bill Peduto)
At the time, the New Pittsburgh Courier reported that independent engineer Jet Lafean testified asbestos was a non-problem, with 00.00 percent showing up in analyzed plaster samples. But with pending budget shortfalls, rising building overcapacity costs and other looming expenses, the board believed its own reports saying asbestos was a major liability issue and voted to shutter the 92-year-old building.
Last month, the district admitted asbestos was not a problem, but said the closure was justified to avoid drastic cuts to programming and staff in the worsening economy. That news did not sit well with alumni and Oakland residents who’d like to see the school, or at least its athletic facilities used by the district.
Several have attended a series of meetings sponsored by City Councilman Bill Peduto to get public input on the future of Schenley. Cynthia Golden said she thought the district’s original plan was to sell the building, but the collapse of the real estate banking market shelved that idea, which she said would result in even more costs to the district anyway.
“If the board chooses to sell this building it is making a big mistake. It should continue to be used as a public school, especially given the recent reports that the asbestos problem—which the public was told was the reason to close the school—does not exist,” she said. “I want to suggest that even if the district does not have money right now to repair and update the classroom space, the athletic facilities were added much more recently than the rest of the building and could be used immediately. The few million dollars the district would receive from selling the building would not be worth the loss of the sports facilities, which would take tens of millions more to replace.”
Barbara Daley Danko, said she would never get over the Schenley closing.
“Two of my kids graduated from there, but I think it was even more iconic to the people living in, or who grew up in, the Hill,” she said. “Until they knock it down, I’m still fighting the good fight.”
The district’s last attempt to sell the building in 2011 resulted in only one bid from a Philadelphia firm offering $2 million. As the district still owes $3 million on the building, it has set a minimum bid of $4 million.
Peduto said Superintendent of Schools Linda Lane has agreed not to put out any new requests for proposals on the building until it hears all community input. So far the proposals for adaptive reuse of the building have included turning the upper floors into apartments and using the lower floors for work/gallery space for artists and entrepreneurs.
“A school can be an anchor, with a community built around it, but an empty school can be an anchor that weighs a community down,” he said.
The last of Peduto’s three sponsored meetings is scheduled for July 25, 7 p.m. at UCP/CLASS, 4638 Centre Ave. in Oakland.