November 15, 2017

The Oconee Street School Building Will Find New Life

City Dope

Photo Credit: Jessica Silverman

The dark brick building on the hill off Oconee Street has sat empty for several years, since the nonprofit ACTION Inc. moved out, and it sat empty for 15 or so years before that, in between when the school closed around 1971 and ACTION bought it in the late 1980s. Although it doesn’t look great, the old masonry building is structurally sound, according to Amy Kissane, executive director of the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation.

Ten years ago, the Athens-Clarke County Commission rejected a plan to raze the 1908 schoolhouse for townhomes, which would have allowed the financially struggling nonprofit to pay off its debts. That decision has finally paid off, as ACTION is debt-free, and Atlanta developer Wesley DeFoor is converting the building and a 1950s annex into 16 apartments—most likely student-oriented, he said, given their proximity to campus.

DeFoor is using federal historic-preservation tax credits to help finance the project, which requires him to repair or restore just about everything but the asbestos, down to the window frames and moldings. “We can’t even touch the chalkboards,” he said at a Nov. 8 open house. Or the pull-down walls between classrooms that allowed them to be converted into auditoriums for large meetings, said Maxine Easom, who taught there in the 1960s.

But restoring and repurposing such buildings may not be possible for long. It’s usually cheaper for developers to raze them and start over, and tax credits (about 20–25 percent of the $2.2 million cost, in this case, DeFoor said) are all that makes them financially feasible. Such credits were used to rehab Whitehall Mill and the Bottleworks, as well as Southern Mill, where Creature Comforts is locating its second brewery just north of Boulevard.

The Republican tax-reform bill would repeal the tax credit in 2020, making it much tougher to save historic structures. “Think about what the value is for Athens-Clarke County,” Kissane said. “It will hurt a lot of small towns.”