NORTHSIDE - The more than $6 million remake of a historic Northside landmark is just weeks away from a grand unveiling.
Renovations are nearly complete on the 105-year-old former Kirby Road School, which has been transformed over the last year into 40 apartments.
Dubbed the Kirby School Apartments, the former Cincinnati Public elementary school building was purchased in 2013 by Bloomfield/Schon + Partners. This month, the Walnut Hills-based developer is putting the final touches on the units, which include studio, one, two and three bedrooms.
Already 25 percent of the apartments have been leased, with rents ranging from $680 to $1,400 a month.
A community open house is set for Wednesday, June 1 from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the building, located at 1710 Bruce Avenue.
Officials with Bloomfield/Schon said they’re offering tours of the building to former students and teachers who have been in touch since work began last July.
"The best thing about this kind of project is that you learn about how important the building is to the community and what this institution meant to so many people,” said Adam Bloomfield, partner at Bloomfield/Schon. "As soon as we purchased the building we started hearing from former teachers and students who were so enthusiastic about the plans and we know they’re eager to see how it’s turned out."
But it's a project that almost didn't happen, Bloomfield said.
New Life for Old Schools
The Kirby School property is among more than a dozen schools that CPS has closed in the last decade.
While the move has ushered in new opportunities for developers, it's also left numerous neighborhood leaders scrambling to secure a future for the aging structures.
“We've seen it happen in other neighborhoods -- these old schools become vacant, obsolete and die," said Ollie Kroner, president of the Northside Community Council.
As the property approached the auction block in 2013, Martha Dourson said Bloomfield/Schon was top of mind as she and members of The Committee To Save Kirby Road School hustled to find a local buyer for the building.
“Our No. 1 goal was to save this school from being demolished and they already had a good reputation in the community," said Dourson, a neighborhood resident since 1982 and former community council president.
In 2011, the firm took on the $22 million renovation of the neighborhood's long-abandoned American Can factory on Harrison Avenue. That massive project delivered over 100 loft-style apartments and new retail space. The apartments are now fully leased, with a waiting list for interested renters.
Adam Bloomfield said his firm accepted Dourson's challenge to craft a plan for the former Kirby school.
“Old buildings like this are just a drain on community resources when they sit empty," said Adam Bloomfield. “The school had not been closed for very long, but there were already complaints that this is where the drug trafficking was taking place and that kids were finding ways inside the building. That’s not what you want to see happen."
But then a glitch with the online bidding site overseeing the property's auction nearly kept the firm pulling the trigger.
"There were all these problems, and then the time of the auction was changed so we said 'forget this... it's too much of a hassle," Bloomfield said.
Word of the firm's decision reached Dourson, who urged the firm to reconsider. She even put in calls to CPS board members to alert them to the last-minute auction changes.
"Eventually, things got smoothed out, and I remember getting a text while I was getting on a plane that said 'We just bought a schoolhouse,'" Bloomfield said. "It's been such a great opportunity."
More than four years later, Dourson said she's "ecstatic" with the outcome.
"This is exactly the kind of redevelopment you want to see happen in a community," Koner said. "Something that that keeps the historic character of the community and breaths new life into your neighborhood."
Rooms with a view and chalkboard
Back at Kirby, the former school is listed on the National Register of Historic of Places and said by developers to be one of the few neo-classical school houses left in Southwest Ohio.
Developers have landed $600,000 in state preservation tax credits to help cover the cost of maintaining original features in the building, including Rookwood tile water fountains that line the main hall.
Chalkboards, coatrooms, wainscoting and even the school’s original library, complete with wooden shelves, will be retained and used as architectural features in the planned apartments.
Renters can have their pick of living in the former principal’s office -- decked out with floor-to-ceiling built-in cabinets -- or loft-style units crafted in the school’s gymnasium. A local artist, Bloomfield/Schon said, has already leased a more than 2,000 square foot unit molded from the school’s former auditorium and theater.
“While you’re limited with what you can do because of the existing structure, it still gives you a chance to create something totally unique,” Bloomfield said. “There are a lot of eccentric, cool touches that come with the historic nature of the building -- something that no one else has in Cincinnati."