PAXTON — Landmarks Illinois has joined a group of Paxton residents in urging the Paxton-Buckley-Loda school district to halt its plans to have its oldest school building torn down this fall.
The nonprofit organization, which advocates for the preservation of historic buildings in Illinois, sent a letter Tuesday to the school board urging it to reconsider the planned demolition of PBL Eastlawn School and instead sell it to someone who will repurpose it.
A day earlier, the 94-year-old brick school building at 314 E. Center St. in Paxton was determined to be eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places — which, in addition to recognizing it as a “valuable place worthy of preservation,” would “open the door to significant financial incentives for private re-use,” noted the letter, written by Frank Butterfield, director of Landmarks Illinois’ Springfield office.
Such incentives include a 20 percent federal historic tax credit and a newly created 25 percent state historic tax credit toward rehabilitation costs, Butterfield said.
Butterfield said such credits have been used to help communities across Illinois “re-use and reinvest in their historic school buildings via the private market,” including recently in Bloomington, Rockford and Paris, where former schools have been turned into senior housing, apartments and a police department’s headquarters.
“These projects, among others, have sparked sizeable private investment in a vacant public building,” Butterfield said. “These are often win-win for the public bodies and taxpayers, in that they avoid a large-scale demolition and associated costs while adding a property to the tax rolls.”
In March, PBL school board members voted unanimously to approve a bid from Lee Farms Excavating and General Waste Services to remove asbestos from PBL Eastlawn School and tear it down for $1.15 million, with the project anticipated to begin Aug. 26 and end Dec. 20.
Prior to the demolition and asbestos abatement occurring, the school district plans to conduct a live auction on July 13 at the school, giving the public a chance to buy any items remaining there.
Some Paxton residents want to see the structure spared from the wrecking ball, however, and enlisted the help of Landmarks Illinois.
Paxton resident Jolen Anya Minetz told members of the Paxton City Council and the PBL school board this week about the ongoing efforts to save Eastlawn.
The school board made no comments and Superintendent Cliff McClure declined to comment after Minetz read a prepared statement to them.
“When a historic building is listed on the National Register, it opens up an opportunity for substantial federal and state tax credits, which could attract a variety of business proposals and investors,” Minetz said in her statement.
“In full disclosure, I have personally been working on a proposal for a large-scale adaptive re-use project that Eastlawn would be well-suited for, and that would likely benefit the local economy in the long term,” she continued. “I have heard of other people inquiring about the building for adaptive re-use, as well.
“Considering there are at least two interested parties, it would be great to put the energy into this and, as a community, evaluate the options for reinvestment before we rush toward demolition and lose this potential asset forever.”
Until recently, few residents had publicly voiced their desire to see Eastlawn saved and repurposed, despite the school board publicly stating its intention to replace it almost seven years ago.
It was in November 2012 when Dave Dowling, then the board’s vice president, brought up the need to address the school’s fate. Dowling said the building was in poor shape, would require extensive renovations to be modernized, and does not fit the educational needs of its students.
Dean Swan, who at the time was the board’s secretary, agreed that it was time to start planning to replace the school.
“I think we can all agree that the building needs replaced,” Swan said.
In February 2016, during the second of four community engagement sessions held to obtain community feedback about options to address the school district’s facility needs, the public also did not appear to be so keen on the idea of saving Eastlawn, with most people saying they felt it should be torn down and a new school built.
Only one table of people at the session had as its top choice saving Eastlawn and renovating it to accommodate a 21st Century learning environment. Only two other tables even mentioned renovating Eastlawn among their top three choices.
In November 2016, voters approved a $30 million referendum to give the school district the funds it needed to build a 63,400-square-foot, two-story addition to Clara Peterson Elementary School’s east side and tear down Eastlawn, whose students will be moving into the new addition this fall.
In his letter, Butterfield noted that during the series of community engagement sessions, the public was never presented as an option the possibility of marketing Eastlawn for private re-use via a request for proposals, resulting in job creation and tax revenues while avoiding the cost of demolition.
“The community engagement sessions and subsequent referendum language presented demolition as the only alternative,” Butterfield said. “We believe a re-use option that could generate economic activity, leverage state and federal incentives and prevent taxpayer-funded demolition is worth considering.”
Butterfield noted that if the building is torn down, it is likely that the school district would be required to obtain a permit from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency related to “storm-water discharges associated with construction site activities.”
If a state permit is required, he said, the school district would also be required by state law to consult the State Historic Preservation Office of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to evaluate alternatives that “could eliminate, minimize or mitigate” the project’s “adverse effect” on historic resources.
“Following the determination of eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places, it is established that Eastlawn is a historic resource,” Butterfield said. “Demolition, as the indicated course of action by the school district, is clearly an adverse effect.”
Butterfield suggested that one way to eliminate the “adverse effect to historic Eastlawn” would be for the school district to pause its demolition plans and seek private re-use proposals via a request-for-proposals process.
“We encourage the school board to work with local advocates and organizations like Landmarks Illinois to evaluate alternatives and leverage incentives prior to moving forward with demolition plans at Eastlawn,” Butterfield said. “Vacant school buildings offer an opportunity for re-use, job creation, tax revenue and community pride, and we hope that Paxton’s Eastlawn can join the growing list of success stories.”
The old school building served as Paxton High School from 1925 to 1965 and then as a junior high school until 2005, when it became PBL Eastlawn School, an elementary school housing third- through fifth-graders.