By Phil Pfuehler, River Falls Journal, Mar 26, 2014
The school board has a big decision to make about the historic River Falls Academy building. But after its March 24 regular meeting, it’s clear the bigger decision is what to do about 200-some students housed in the Academy for the Montessori and Renaissance programs.
Gorman’s Ted Matkom said his company has renovated and converted other old buildings, including those on the National Register of Historic Places, into low-income apartments, offices, condos and senior living complexes.
In River Falls, Matkom said Gorman’s $10,000 bid for the Academy would convert the 1927 and 1950 portions into 24 low-income apartments. The building’s notable historic features would be preserved.
The Academy’s 1991 addition that now houses the elementary Montessori program would be leased back to the school district for $1 a year.
The bid’s deal hinges on several tax credit options that Gorman would apply for to subsidize its costs.
One is called “Market Rate” and involves seeking “historic tax credits” at the state and federal levels to cover 40% of the project’s costs.
Two other options are to seek more tax credits through the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Authority (WHEDA).
The second of these two WHEDA options provides the largest percentage of tax credits (9%) but is very competitive and time consuming.
Matkom estimated the Academy conversion project would cost $6 million to $7 million.
He said Gorman was in no hurry to start, which was good because obtaining one or more of the tax credit options will take time.
Asked about Gorman’s interest in the River Falls Academy, Matkom said: “I love the neighborhood, I think it’s phenomenal.”
He added the building has great visual appeal because of its “ornate nature” and “1920s architecture.”
A large school board audience came primed with questions.
Bob Ebert lives in an old house near to the Academy on Pearl Street. Ebert wondered how 24 new apartment units would affect street parking in the neighborhood.
(Earlier it was reported that Gorman would use an old gym at the Academy to build underground parking, but that turned out to be not true.)
“Parking can be a real issue, especially in the winter,” Ebert said. “We need two off-street parking spots for each of those units.”
Several mothers of current or future Montessori students posed questions, including:
–Would there be background checks of apartment tenants to ensure the safety of students still using the newer part of the Academy?
–How would the school and apartment portions be kept separate and secure, and how would problems such as tenants smoking and having parties be handled to protect the school’s integrity?
–Would increase tenant traffic increase the chances of accidents for the students?
–How would the apartment complex affect neighboring property values?
–How would school safety be ensured while construction was occurring to convert part of the building into apartments?
–If there was a fire in an apartment, would there be adequate notification for the school to be evacuated?
School board member Manny Kenny assured the crowd that nothing would be done at the Academy that “would put our children at risk.”
Kenny said that no one had all the answers, but asked for the public’s trust. He guaranteed the school board will craft and present a plan that emphasizes student safety.
For the complete story and more school board coverage, including calendar makeup days, see the March 27 print edition of the River Falls Journal.