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Detroit district defers sale of Cooley High School, seeking new talks with bidder

A landscape shot of a vacant high school building, with boarded and broken windows as well as graffiti tags along the facade.

A vote on selling the vacant property of Cooley High School was postponed Tuesday during a Detroit Public Schools Community District school board meeting.

Ethan Bakuli / Chalkbeat

Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti is revoking a recommendation to sell the vacant Cooley High School to local nonprofit Life Remodeled, bringing the discussion over the future of the blighted building back to the negotiating table.

“There was apprehension to move forward with the sale as is,” Vitti said at a school board meeting Tuesday.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District was preparing to sell Cooley, once one of Detroit’s most storied high schools, to Life Remodeled for $400,000. But in recent days, the sale has stirred opposition from some board members seeking more clarity on the nonprofit’s plans.

Vitti said the district will “continue to negotiate with a higher sale price or benchmarks in the purchasing agreement” to ensure that the proposal to repurpose Cooley can be executed according to an agreed-upon timeline.

Two developers — Life Remodeled and Pennsylvania-based Bridging the Gap Development — were the finalists to buy the vacant property. Following discussions with both bidders, the district favored Life Remodeled’s $400,000 offer, based on the organization’s financial standing as well as its track record repurposing former school buildings in the city over several years.

In 2017, when the district was under emergency management, Life Remodeled won a $1-a-year lease to the former site of Durfee Elementary-Middle School under an agreement to redevelop the building into Durfee Innovation Society, a community hub for nonprofits and entrepreneurs.

In recent years, the nonprofit drew attention for remodeling buildings including Osborn High School and Cody High School. 

Life Remodeled publicly bid on Cooley last November, proposing to redevelop it as a community hub, similar to Durfee, over three years through an investment of $37.5 million.

But Vitti said Life Remodeled’s proposal raised concerns among some board members about whether the district was underpricing the property, and about how its future owners would use the site. 

It came to the district’s attention over the weekend, Vitti said, that Life Remodeled intended to gift a football field located on the Cooley property to a junior college. 

“That raised concerns to us, because that wasn’t explicitly stated in the proposal,” he said.

Under district policy, the district recognizes itself as a steward of publicly owned land and real estate and has an obligation to ensure that any potential buyers of district property use it properly.

“Good public policy says you hold that buyer accountable to what they say they’ll do, and that’s what we’re trying to do in this case,” said Sonya Mays, board member and chair of the district’s finance committee.

“We just did not get those execution protections that we need in this document,” Mays said.

Adding certain benchmarks to the proposal, Vitti said, would provide added security that the future of the site would be “aligned to the proposal and beneficial to the community of DPSCD.”

An architectural landmark that became an eyesore

Cooley opened in 1928 on Detroit’s northwest side and became renowned for its Mediterranean Revival architecture. It closed in 2010, following a decline in student enrollment.

Since then, people in the surrounding community have come to view the property as an eyesore. Local residents, along with Cooley alumni, have called on the district to address the blight, either by selling or reopening the high school.

In August, following board approval of the district’s $700 million plan to renovate, rebuild and sell school buildings across the city, the district put Cooley up for sale. The district’s academic committee approved the sale in late October, but the finance committee blocked it from going to a vote at Tuesday’s school board meeting.

During a Nov. 10 finance committee meeting, Vitti shared that a recent appraisal pegged the building’s value at $930,000. But the district declined to renegotiate the offer price with Life Remodeled based on the appraisal.

The district estimated that it would cost $300,000 a year to annually maintain the property, on top of nearly $6 million to demolish the building.

Given those costs, Vitti said, he had favored sticking with a lower asking price to attract buyers. The district plans to use the proceeds from Cooley’s sale to help reopen the former Northern High School as the new site of the district’s central office.

Calls to move ahead with the sale

Chris Lambert, founder of Life Remodeled, denounced Tuesday’s decision, adding that he had been notified “24 hours ago” about the district’s call to renegotiate the deal.

“Despite passionate pleas from Cooley community members for nearly 13 years, every single time something positive could have been done with Cooley, school board members have allowed it to continue to become one of Detroit’s longest monuments of urban decay,” Lambert said during the public comment period at Tuesday’s board meeting. 

Lambert said Life Remodeled made numerous concessions, including adding language to the purchase agreement that went “far beyond” the terms in the district’s original request for proposals. “We accepted restrictive covenants, deed restrictions, clawback causes that were already in there that most developers would not accept,” Lambert said.

Some board members were also frustrated and called for fast-tracking the district’s negotiations with Life Remodeled. 

“It doesn’t feel good as an alum to know we’re stuck here,” said board Vice President Deborah Hunter-Harvill.  

“I’m hoping that this property will be sold. This is not rocket science,” she said. “Even if its appraisal is $700,000, I don’t think we will get that much.”

Local residents, too, were disappointed by the district’s decision.

“As we go back and forth about the building, and how much it should be sold for, the building is still standing in the condition that it is in, and it’s continuing to disintegrate,” said Charlotte Blackwell, who lives in the Fenkell/Hubbell neighborhood surrounding Cooley.

Sandra Sterling, a leader with the Calvary Community Association block club, has lived in the area near Cooley for over 54 years. 

“I’m here today because Life Remodeled is the only group that has come to our community to say anything about doing anything with Cooley High School,” Sterling said. “Do not carry this into another year. We’ve lost too many people who have been fighting for Cooley over the last 10 years.”

Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at ebakuli@chalkbeat.org.

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