2012-11-22 / Front Page

Old school site has many possibilities if funds are ever available

By KIP BURKE
news editor


During last week’s design study, local residents toured the old high school wood shop and expressed their surprise at how much furniture and equipment had been left behind. During last week’s design study, local residents toured the old high school wood shop and expressed their surprise at how much furniture and equipment had been left behind. Washington’s old Gordon Street school site, former home of Washington Central High and more recently the combined high school and middle school, has many possibilities for future use, urban planners say, from a city park to a new municipal complex, but the reality of paying for those possibilities may keep anything from being done with the site any time soon.

Last week, planners explored the site’s possibilities in design workshop conducted by the CSRA Regional Commission. The workshop, or “charrette,” is part of the second component of the Southwest Washington Urban Redevelopment Plan update, the first part of which was the redevelopment of Rusher Street.

“The primary focus of the charrette is to envision ideal arrangements of buildings and land, and to consider a variety of land uses, that may be desirable for the site in the future,” said Christian Lentz, planning director for the CSRA Regional Commission. “This project wasn’t a market study, and it won’t identify funding mechanisms. There’s not much funding out there.”


A new municipal center and city hall was the ultimate dream use that planners imagined for the old school site’s use in a design workshop conducted by the CSRA Regional Commission. Funding for such a project is not expected to be available in the foreseeable future, but the design exercise gives the city a long-term vision for the site’s eventual use. A new municipal center and city hall was the ultimate dream use that planners imagined for the old school site’s use in a design workshop conducted by the CSRA Regional Commission. Funding for such a project is not expected to be available in the foreseeable future, but the design exercise gives the city a long-term vision for the site’s eventual use. During the study last week, the old school buildings were opened for city leaders, CSRA planners, and interested citizens to get a close look at the school complex, which has lain unused for three years. Although the design workshop was focused on future possibilities for the site, visitors couldn’t help but focus on how the old school had deteriorated since being abandoned.

“This is so sad,” said Eddie Finnell as he walked through the halls, dodging animal droppings and eyeing discarded furniture, books, and band trophies. “They just left the school like this, but all of this stuff could have been sold.”

The old school started life as Washington Central High during the years of segregated schools, and holds a special place in many hearts, Finnell said. “We hope they can preserve at least part of the school, because it was part of the African- American history of Washington.”

Part of the school’s roof was damaged by hail, and water has leaked into the school in many places, requiring that many windows and doors be left open to prevent mold and mildew. The Wilkes County Board of Education used the $752,000 insurance settlement for the hail damage to build athletic fields and facilities at the new school, and in July 2010, turned the Gordon Street property over to the City of Washington.

For more than a year, both the school board and the city expected the property to be bought by The Guardian Center to be used as a homeland security training center, but that prospect fell through. For the last year, there have been plans to auction off the remaining contents of the school, but there has been no real plan, or money, to preserve the existing structures or come up with alternative uses for the property.

Last week’s design study was aimed at establishing a long-term vision for the site, Lentz said, to give city leaders a solid framework on which to make decisions about how the site could be used.

That vision could ultimately see the site used as a new municipal complex, using the old school’s main administrative areas and the cafeteria as city office space, with a new city hall where the gym is now. New buildings for the now-cramped police department and fire department could also fit on the site, along with an amphitheater on the slope in front of the school building.

Due to funding restraints, however, those plans could take decades to come to fruition. “This is wonderful, but I don’t see this happening in my lifetime,” said City Councilman Henry Harris at the charrette’s final meeting. “There’s just no money.”

Because of the proximity of Wills Memorial Hospital and other medical facilities, commercial development at the site could include medical offices and other health care industries. The site is not appropriate for heavy industry because of the proximity of existing homes, Lentz said.

With the expected development of the Foxwood senior housing development nearby, and a planned walking trail between Gordon Street and Robert Toombs Avenue, the site could eventually see some development for homes, too, Lentz said. “But right now, our recommendation to the city is, ‘don’t give it away.’”

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