By Kristin Longley
The city may finally have a viable plan to breathe life into the old Oak School, a historic site dating back more than a century in Flint's Grand Traverse neighborhood.
If a local developer gets his way -- and $5 million from the federal government -- the stately former Flint school with its tall windows and arched entryways could become low-income housing for senior citizens.
It's the potential solution that neighbors of the Oak School have been waiting for since the red brick building was boarded up after it emptied in 1998.
Formerly a Flint elementary school, the district closed it in 1976 due to declining enrollment and it later was home to Community Mental Health programs.
"Oak School is an anchor property and a very visible property in the Grand Traverse Neighborhood," said Doug Weiland, executive director of the Land Bank. "This will clean up the property, make it attractive and it will really help rejuvenate that portion of the neighborhood."
The project hinges on a $4-million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that would be used along with about $1 million in federal stimulus funds awarded to the Land Bank for neighborhood stabilization.
The grant application was boosted by a letter from U.S. Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Flint, who wrote that the project would "provide necessary housing for the underserved in Flint."
Leading the initiative is developer Communities First, a Flint-based company formed in October and owned by Glenn Wilson, in partnership with North Haven, Conn.-based New Samaritan Corp.
According to its website, New Samaritan has been developing housing for the elderly since 1970.
The goal is to keep the historic site's character -- such as the tiles, the wainscotting and the overarching roof -- while transforming the old classrooms into apartment units for senior citizens.
Wilson said he believes the city is in need of senior housing and he hopes to fill the void.
There are currently about 1,000 people on the waiting list for Flint public housing, about 70 of them are senior citizens, said Rod Slaughter, director of the Flint Housing Commission.
"With 24 units, I think it could be successful," he said. "A new place to stay, they would definitely take advantage of that, especially if it's subsidized."
According to HUD's website, the grant funds are for capital advances to finance the construction, rehabilitation or acquisition of housing for "very low-income elderly persons," and for rent subsidies to make the housing affordable.
The application is expected to be sent in this month and Wilson hopes to hear back by December, he said.
Should Communities First be awarded the funding, construction is expected to begin in 2012 and the building could begin to be occupied by January 2013, according to city council documents.
The units would be about 540 square feet, complete with a bedroom, living room, bathroom and functioning kitchen. The building would have to remain senior housing for 40 years, according to the terms of the funding.
Oak School sits just a few blocks west of downtown, where several successful redevelopment projects have taken place in recent years. The historic Durant Hotel, which also was owned by the Land Bank, was transformed into a 93-unit apartment building.
Ideas for reviving Oak School over the years have included a mix of office and residential use and community education, but a lack of funding has stymied any serious proposals from coming to fruition.
Parts of the building are believed to date to 1898 and an addition built in 1955 includes a community room and a gym, according to Flint Journal files.
Tom Wyatt, president of the Grand Traverse District Neighborhood Association, said the group has been trying to bring attention to the Oak Schools's plight. He said he's pretty confident the idea could work, if it's properly funded.
"It's something the neighborhood has been trying to do for years," he said. "It would bring a little bit more pride to the residents."