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Birmingham Councilor ‘Aghast’ at Plans to Give Up Historic School; City Calls it ‘Blight’

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Located at 24th Street and 6th Avenue North, the current building was built in 1888. Shuttered since 2001, the historic 16,944 square-foot schoolhouse caught fire in 2011, substantially damaging the building. (Nathan Watson/BhamNow.com)

By Ryan Michaels

The Birmingham Times

After much debate, Birmingham City Council on Tuesday decided to hand over the future of the city’s oldest school to developers to restore and develop, or demolish, if they choose.

Located at 24th Street and 6th Avenue North, the Powell School was built in 1888. Shuttered since 2001, the historic 16,944 square-foot site of Birmingham’s first “free school”, caught fire in 2011, substantially damaging the structure.

It was then donated to the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation (ATHP) under a contract meant to seek redevelopment at the property, but that development never happened.

On Tuesday, the council voted 6-3 to terminate a 12-year-old redevelopment plan with ATHP. Councilors Valerie Abbott, Carol Clarke and J.T. Moore all voted no.

The vote now means the ATHP will sell the property to Harbert Realty Services, Sloss Real Estate and Stewart/Perry, all of which are based in Birmingham, and the city will relinquish all control over the property and can’t dictate whether the structure is demolished or any other planned use for the property.

Abbott, chair of the council’s Planning and Zoning Committee, said she was “aghast” the city would “give the property away” to a developer with no guarantee of historical preservation.

“What are they gonna build? Why would we give away property for free to someone who’s not preserving the historic building? Does that make any sense? Just ask yourself,” Abbott said.

The councilor said she had not been shown any proposed plan for what the developers intended to do at the site and didn’t understand why the city was relinquishing all control.

The estimated cost to restore the building is $20 million, according to the city.

Mayor Randall Woodfin said the vacant building has become blight in the Central City community and pointed out it has been 11 years since the redevelopment plans were agreed and nothing done.

“Miss Abbott has been here 22 years [on the council.] This current agreement has been in existence for literally half of [her time at the city],…[This plan] doesn’t make logical sense to [Abbott]. What also doesn’t make logical sense is for it to sit in its current form. That is clear blight,” Woodfin said.

David Williams, president of Harbert Realty Services, said he and his partners have been working on the Powell School redevelopment for three years, have spent “a significant amount” of money to study the uses and potential preservation of the property.

The goal of the partners is to preserve the building but that a tenant or buyer of the property is needed for the $20 million restoration cost to be feasible, Williams said.

“We’ve had a number of attempts with different organizations to occupy the Powell School, and we have a current conversation going on with a tenant, but we have a long, long way to go. Time’s running out on the school. It’s in very, very poor condition,” he said.

The condition of the school is bad enough that the partners have struggled to get consultants, engineers or architects to even enter the building. “It is unsafe,” the developer said.

Preservation may not be possible, but some kind of nod to the history of the building will be part of whatever development happens on the site, he added.

“I make no promises. I don’t know if we can do it, we probably won’t be able to do it. But if we can’t, we have committed that we will repurpose the building in some way to preserve and honor the history and the importance of that building to the city,” Williams said.