The Tale of JFK How the plight of closed schools can make or break a neighborhood
With another round of Oklahoma City school closures being eyed amid shrinking enrollment, the John F. Kennedy neighborhood is emerging as an example of the rebirth that can occur with successful redevelopment of closed campuses.
The former Page Woodson school, previously home to the historic Douglass High School, stood boarded up and blighted for 25 years but now is winning accolades from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Another closed school in the neighborhood, the former Dunbar Elementary, is being converted to a new development to be named Dunbar Commons, apartmentstyle living reserved for income-qualified tenants.
Dunbar, built in 1932 at 1432 NE 7, was still open when the revival of the John F. Kennedy neighborhood took off in the early 2000s after years of stagnation and a struggle to recover from missteps by the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority.
Lots cleared by Urban Renewal in the 1970s started drawing buyers and homebuilders in the early 2000s after the authority shifted its strategy to selling individual lots as compared to seeking large scale development.
When state trooper Wayne Linzy took a shot at being the first to build his own home in the neighborhood, the area was still in bad shape with a poverty rate lingering at 39 percent.
After the city spent
$50 million removing hundreds of homes in the neighborhood, the dream of creating a model inner-city community one mile east of downtown had fallen far short. Linzy was taking a bet on an area that at best was a hodgepodge of low- to moderate-income homes built between the late 1960s and early 1980s with hundreds of empty lots.
But Linzy had grown up in JFK, and his mother lived just one block from where he built his custom home. Fifteen years later, Linzy’s home is surrounded by hundreds of new houses and duplexes in what is considered the upper section of the neighborhood.
The momentum has continued, though some potential homebuyers have told me they looked elsewhere after Dunbar closed in 2010. As it stood empty, vandals broke into the building, set fires and left their marks.
Now the school is under new ownership following a sale to Commonwealth of Fond du Lac, Wis. Aided by an addition to the National Register of Historic Places and historic tax credits, construction started over the summer on conversion to the 52-unit Dunbar Commons apartments.
The affordable housing will come with amenities including a community room, business center, fitness center, safe room, garden and a walking trail around the fouracre campus.
The Douglass at Page Woodson, meanwhile, is sparking a similar spurt of development in the lower part of John F. Kennedy.
Long seen as an elusive if not impossible target for redevelopment, Ron Bradshaw bought the property and spent months talking with area residents and civic leaders to ensure he honored the history of the school and designed a project that would respect the area’s past and future.
Built in 1910 as the Page Woodson School, the former all-white elementary school was renamed Douglass High School in 1934, when it transitioned to serve the city’s African American students.
Douglass became a center for progress during the Civil Rights Movement and frequently housed meetings of figures such as Thurgood Marshall, the nation’s first African American Supreme Court justice.
White flight and a lack of investment in the eastside led to an exodus of families that prompted the closing of Page Woodson in 1993.
Bradshaw’s Colony Partners, working with Smith Dalia Architects, launched a restoration of the building’s historic facade, its auditorium and hallways, while converting it into 60 affordable housing apartments.
The school is now attracting young couples who are choosing to build homes around the campus while the restored auditorium is becoming a community gathering spot for forums, films, performances and rallies.
“Page Woodson School has been given a second life,” Bradshaw said as he reflected on the yearslong development. “Along the way, this process taught us something about community. We thought we were the owners, but soon found out that there were many owners and we were just fortunate enough to be stewards of this restoration.”
The project is also getting noticed in the preservation community with the National Trust for Historic Preservation awarding The Douglass at Page Woodson the prestigious 2018 Richard H. Driehaus Foundation National Preservation Award.
Given each year at the end of a juried competition, the awards are bestowed on historic preservation efforts that demonstrate excellence in execution and a positive impact on the vitality of their towns and cities.
Stephanie Meeks, CEO of the National Trust, noted the Douglass at Page Woodson was honored not just for the restoration, but also for Bradshaw’s efforts to put the community first as part of planning the development.
The John F. Kennedy neighborhood is now seen as one of the top emerging neighborhoods surrounding downtown. With the schools turned into assets, the neighborhood is quickly becoming a rare example of new homes filled with young families and longtime residents living in older houses, maintaining the area’s status as a longtime African American community.
Redevelopment of the former Page Woodson/ Douglass school has spurred a revival of the surrounding John F. Kennedy neighborhood.
This building, formerly home to Dunbar School, is being converted to a new development to be named Dunbar Commons, apartment-style living reserved for income-qualified tenants.
Original lockers from Douglass High School are displayed in the hallways of the Douglass at Page Woodson. Photos from when the school was still the city’s primary high school for the city’s African American community adorn the hallways and common areas.
The former Douglass High School, also known as Page Woodson, has won architectural and preservationist acclaim for its conversion into housing.