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Schenley High School shuttering on the table again

By Bill Zlatos
Friday, November 2, 2007

Despite the asbestos in the nearly century-old Schenley High School, real estate officials see a market for it as a place to live or work.

“It’s prominent. It’s handsome, and it’s close to institutions that have a lot of demand. It has market attributes that a lot of other schools don’t have,” said David Matter, president of the Downtown-based Oxford Development Co.

Matter made his comment Thursday, a day after city schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt proposed for the second time in two years that the school be closed.

Roosevelt cited the $64.3 million cost of removing the asbestos and making mechanical improvements as reasons for closing the school in June. Public hearings will be conducted Nov. 13 and 27, and the school board is scheduled to vote on the proposal in February.

Matter said he talked with Roosevelt a few weeks ago about the marketability of Schenley. Perhaps the school’s greatest asset is its location in Oakland near the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and nearby universities.

“There are institutions that are likely to develop demand for the most appropriate use, which I think is multifamily housing,” Matter said.

Pitt spokesman John Fedele declined to comment on the university’s possible interest in buying the 91-year-old building.

Jason Stewart, vice president of Grubb & Ellis, a Downtown-based commercial real estate services firm, said the building is suitable for condos and offices. Like Matter, he likes Schenley’s location.

“On the surface, the Oakland area is ground zero for our region’s growth,” Stewart said.

Jasmine Davis, 15, of the North Side is a cheerleader and a junior at Schenley. When she learned yesterday morning of the proposed closing, she was heartbroken.

“I don’t want it to close,” Davis said. “I want to graduate from Schenley.”

Supporters of Schenley say they will battle attempts to put it on the market.

“We’re fighting it, but we’re trying to work with the school district,” said Jet Lafean, 56, of Schenley Farms, a member of Save Schenley, a group that opposed the earlier attempt to shut down the school.

He said the group wants to tour the building and review the district’s report on how much the renovation would cost.

“We think the figure’s about half that from what we heard a year ago,” Lafean said.

Roosevelt, however, stands by the estimate.

“You can do a less-expensive remediation that could come around $50 million,” he said. “But we believe to save the building and do it right, the best estimate is $64 million.

Stewart considers Schenley’s historic status — it’s listed on the National Registry of Historic Places — as an asset, too. He cited the conversion of the Heinz factory on the North Shore into Heinz Lofts and the ongoing renovation of the former Nabisco Bakery in East Liberty into Bakery Square, an office and retail development.

Matter said a buyer could take advantage of tax credits available for renovating historic buildings.

Arthur Ziegler, president of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation at Station Square, said any buyer must have the plans approved by the state historic preservation officer.

Given the district’s estimate for fixing the building, Ziegler said he was not surprised the administration wants to sell it.

“But it certainly is a hallmark school building that many people know and respect,” he said. “So we want to see the building retained, if not by the school board, by a serious developer.”

Neither the real estate officials nor Roosevelt would estimate what the building could fetch on the market.

“I think there will be a purchaser for Schenley,” Roosevelt said. “I think it will be a very modest price.”

Bill Zlatos can be reached at or 412-320-7828.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

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