COUNCIL BLUFFS — The biggest rewards tend to come from long shots.
This is literally true in basketball. Sink a basket from at least 19 feet, 9 inches away from the hoop (in a high school game) and you get three points.
This is figuratively true in buildings. Sink $2.5 million into an old school gym that was standing empty, and you get 3 Point.
3 Point Lofts is the latest school-turned-apartments project in the Omaha metro area.
Its innovative design provides an instructive and fun model for shuttered school buildings like three of the recently closed South Omaha Catholic schools. And the 87-year-old neo-Gothic, red-brick structure serves as a reminder that what is old can be made new again if you step behind the line, have a little vision and aim right.
Of course, you then have to shoot.
And this is no easy task in property development, which is why you see so many cornfields becoming tracts of new housing and so many old buildings languishing.
It's often cheaper and easier to build from scratch, say developers, than to redo an existing structure with all the retrofitting, the asbestos, the rejiggering of floor plans, the convincing of neighbors and zoning boards that something they're used to will work as something different.
But the lure of hitting that shot, of making something beautiful on the outside once again useful on the inside, attracts people like Julie Staveneak.
Julie is the co-owner of a smallish, Bluffs-based development firm that has led local projects like Saddle Creek Records in north downtown Omaha, the Harte building in downtown Omaha, the 79-unit transitional apartments for Open Door Mission in east Omaha and downtown Bluffs buildings, including J. Development's headquarters on First Street, otherwise known as Hundred Block.
The company builds new and redoes the old. Julie particularly likes the latter, so when she saw an ad for the old Kirn School gym about two blocks from her Bluffs office, she grabbed the ball and shot.
“I like being part of change,” she said.
The building, with its arched, cathedral-style windows and doorways, looks way more like a church than the windowless boxes that so often house gymnasiums. It had good bones. The exterior was in great shape. And it offered a stunning location: walking distance from downtown Council Bluffs in a neighborhood with mature trees, hills and some real architectural gems.
The historic General Grenville Dodge House, the only Council Bluffs structure listed as a National Historic Landmark, sits nearby. So do houses with big front porches, clay-tile roofs and charmingly painted gingerbread. But a few eyesores, like the condemned house across the street from Kirn gym, are a sober reminder of what happens when old buildings go to pot.
Built in 1926 on the corner of Fifth and Bluff Streets, the gym was called Abraham Lincoln for the high school that once sat across the street. In 1967, the district moved Abraham Lincoln to newer quarters and turned the old high school building into a junior high, christening it Kirn. In 1976, a fire ruined the building and the district tore it down, rebuilding Kirn elsewhere. The separate gym on Fifth Street survived, and the district used it for various school events.
But the gym's use dropped after the fire. The new junior high had its own gym and a pool. The old gym, which according to Diane Ostrowski, once had bragging rights as the loudest place in town to catch a cross-town basketball face-off, grew quieter as the years passed. Council Bluffs Community Schools stopped using it altogether for students and rented it to adult basketball leagues. In 2006, the district decided even that wasn't practical, said Ostrowski, who grew up in the school system and now serves as its spokeswoman. The building cost too much to maintain, and the district put it up for sale.
School redos are not uncommon, and there are plenty of examples around Omaha of what the afterlife may hold. Anyone who remembers Rosenblatt surely walked by Rosewater School, which was turned into apartments. Anyone who has ever driven down Cuming Street surely saw Tech, which is now TAC, the headquarters for the Omaha Public Schools.
The old Clifton Hill Elementary building in north Omaha is home to Girls Inc. The old Giles School in Bellevue is a daycare. The old Cathedral High is part museum, part music institute, part fellowship hall.
The most common second life for school buildings is residential. Sixteen of 23 former OPS schools have been turned into apartments or condos.
Schools aren't always easy to renovate. Seldin Co. has run into some neighborhood resistance on its plans to turn the former Gunn Elementary in Council Bluffs into an assisted living center.
There's plenty of evidence of what happens when no one wants to remodel an old building. Local preservationist Wayne Andersen told me that two Bluffs beauties will probably be razed. One is an 1890s duplex that will become a parking lot. The other is a brick home built by a Polish immigrant near the ConAgra plant.
“I would sure like to save it,” Andersen said.
Julie's company bought the Kirn gym in 2007, paying $8,000 for the building. But it took several years and six sources to line up financing. A hoped-for federal historic tax credit fell through, in part because J. Development wasn't going to retain the gym's open space. (Communal-style living would be a tough sell.)
In addition to putting up her own money and getting a bank loan and state tax credits, Julie had to seek help from the City of Council Bluffs and the nonprofit Pottawattamie County Community Development, groups that are eager to see downtown Council Bluffs continue its rebirth and fill what they say is a demand for loft-style apartments in walking distance from downtown. Other recent projects in downtown Council Bluffs filled up fast.
Omaha-based Alley Poyner designed the gym renovation, and while the building is not yet complete, the results so far are fun:
» Redone wood with basketball court lines repainted.
» Redone ticket booths that will serve as windows into the past, with historic photos hung inside.
» Two hanging basketball backboard and hoops in the foyer (for decoration only).
» Restored wood bleachers in the foyer where residents can hang out.
» Light galore from so many windows, including all the formerly covered windows in the basement.
The project has thrilled preservationists, local officials and even a visiting congressman. U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, a Democrat from Waterloo, Iowa, who is running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Tom Harkin, was passing through during my recent visit.
“I can see why this would be an attractive place to live,” he said.
So do I. The exposed brick. The wooden bleachers. You get all the nostalgia and none of the sweat smell or sneaker squeaks.
It took Julie and business partner Jim Royer six years to make this long shot. It took patience and myriad government agencies and creative financing.
They could have picked a spot closer to the net, a sure two-pointer.
Instead, they backed up. They chose a spot behind the line.
And they shot for three.
Correction: The Dodge House is the only Council Bluffs structure listed as a National Historic Landmark. The building housing Abraham Lincoln High School in the Bluffs opened in 1960 as a junior high; it became the high school in 1967. An earlier version of this story included an incorrect description and date.