Garfield Avenue Elementary School in Milwaukee closed 11 years ago. But in certain rooms, it appears it could have been filled with children yesterday.
Walking the hallways of beat-up wooden floors that line the 130-year-old structure in the city’s Bronzeville district, visitors notice the building still smells like a school.
A welcome sign on a second-floor bulletin board encourages adults to prepare children for today and tomorrow. The office still has newspaper clippings on a board and papers in the filing cabinets.
Inside the classrooms, student quizzes hang on walls and textbooks are piled on desks. The library is filled with children’s books – Dr. Seuss was an obvious favorite.
But not all parts of the school are intact. Paint is peeling from around most of the windows and water fountains have been ripped from the foundation and shattered.
Maures Development Group LLC, led by Melissa Goins, has eyed the property since 2014. In January, redevelopment of the Garfield Avenue Elementary building finally began with a two-phase, $16.6 million project Goins believes will be catalytic for the neighborhood.
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The building, located at 2215 N. Fourth St., is situated among the Bronzville cultural district along North Avenue, the stable residential neighborhood of Halyard Park and the trendy Brewers Hill neighborhood, and is just one mile north of the site of the new Milwaukee Bucks arena and all of the development that is planned to accompany the project.
“This is the time and this is the place,” Goins said.
Goins was selected in 2015 by the City of Milwaukee to purchase the Garfield School property with a partner, St. Paul, Minnesota-based affordable housing developer CommonBond Communities Inc.
She parted ways with CommonBond in late 2015 and instead contacted Josh Jeffers, a fellow developer and president of Milwaukee-based J. Jeffers & Co., with whom she had hit it off a few years ago.
“She was looking for someone with historic glutton for punishment tendencies and immediately, Jeffers came to mind,” he joked. “Within the course of a 45-minute conversation on the project, I was immediately on board. I thought this building had really good bones and was a candidate for conversion. You can’t save every historic building, but I knew this had a lot going for it.”
Jeffers has specialized in converting historic buildings, including the Mackie Building, 225 E. Michigan St., from offices into apartments and restored the Mitchell Building, 207 E. Michigan St. He was the perfect addition to the project, adding the historic restoration element Goins did not have on her resume, she said.
Goins previously partnered with Northbrook, Illinois-based Brinshore Development LLC to build two affordable apartment projects in the Lindsay Heights neighborhood – the 36-unit Franklin Square and the 24-unit Heart and Hope Place.
Franklin Square was phase two of Teutonia Gardens, a 24-unit affordable apartment development at 2709 N. Teutonia Ave.
Now, with “Milwaukee talent collided,” as Goins and Jeffers say, the two could move forward on the Garfield school project.
The project includes the conversion of the former three-story school into 30 affordable apartments. The third-floor gym will be kept intact and used as community space.
The first floor of the school will include a joint leasing office that also will be used for the project’s other component, The Griot, which will include the reopening of America’s Black Holocaust Museum on the first floor. The museum has been closed since 2008.
The Griot, a nod to West African storytellers, will include four floors of new construction adjacent to the school, on a site occupied by the former Grant’s Soul Food restaurant at 411 W. North Ave. and the former America’s Black Holocaust Museum at 2235 N. Fourth St., as well as vacant parcels at 2226-34 N. Fifth St.
On the upper levels will be 41 apartments. Goins and Jeffers are talking to cafes and other possible tenants for the remaining 2,000 square feet of commercial space on the first floor.
The sale of the former school building closed on Jan. 6, and construction began immediately. The project is expected to be completed in October.
Goins credits the City of Milwaukee for helping the project come to fruition by committing to it financially. The project will receive $1.4 million in city funds (including tax incremental financing and grants), plus a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Milwaukee Area Workforce Funding Alliance and the nonprofit Northcott Neighborhood House also have helped finance the project.
“The city has been a key partner in the project, providing financial assistance from multiple resources,” Goins said.
The only financing the developers are waiting on is $250,000 from Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.’s Community Development Investment Grant Program, which will allow them to begin construction on The Griot.
Historic tax credits make it necessary to save the original construction of portions of the school, such as the width of the hallways and large, open stairwells. This makes the project possible from a financial standpoint but is less efficient, Jeffers said.
For example, the 53,000-square-foot former school building will have about 29,000 square feet of rentable space once renovated.
The end result will be a unique apartment building that still resembles a school, which it operated as from the time it was constructed in 1887 through 2006, Jeffers said.
Over the next 10 months, hauling out and donating thousands of pounds of classroom materials and turning a building that served as a school for 130 years into housing will be a challenge Goins and Jeffers are not taking for granted.
“The Griot has its own issues with the DNR and building demo, but that is way easier than sending in construction crews and saying, ‘Leave that molding here and you can move this wall but not that one,’” Jeffers said. “Rehab is definitely harder than new construction and adaptive reuse is the farthest end of the spectrum. It’s definitely harder, but it’s rewarding, too.”
Goins has two sons and a 17-month-old daughter. Jeffers has an 8-month-old son. When the two are up in the middle of the night with their babies (and worrying about the project ahead of them) they are often able to calm each other down because of their different expertise.
“This is a first for me. I’ve only done houses, not historic or adaptive reuse,” Goins said. “Both professionally and personally, we fill in the gaps of knowledge and experience. And we really get along, too – we laugh a lot.”
Said Jeffers: “I’ll text her at midnight having a panic attack and think we’re sunk and she’ll have a contact or a solution. This has been a really great experience.”