Silencing the old, creaky wooden floors will be just one of the challenges in bringing the old Garfield Elementary School back to life — not as a place of learning, but as a modern living space and centerpiece for renewal of the surrounding north Rapid City neighborhood.
“It’s a unique building; it’s going to be a challenge for sure,” said Bill Barber of Glenn Barber & Associates, the general contractor who will transform the 105-year-old red brick school building at 925 Dilger Ave. into 13 rental apartments.
That’s just one of the changes coming to the neighborhood located north of the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center and Rapid City Central High School. Black Hills Area Habitat for Humanity also plans to build four new triplex units featuring two- and three-bedroom apartments on the old school lot.
Garfield Green, formally known as the Garfield Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative, could bring 25 new families to the neighborhood as Black Hills Area Habitat for Humanity’s most ambitious project in its 25-year history.
“Part of what made this such an exciting project for us was the opportunity to do a deep dive in one neighborhood and really in fact, define the neighborhood,” said Scott Engmann, executive director of Black Hills Area Habitat for Humanity.
The original Garfield School, named for U.S. President James A. Garfield, was built in 1910. Additions were completed in 1922 and 1931.
A combination of low enrollment and tight school district budgets forced the Rapid City school board to shutter both Garfield and Lincoln elementary schools after the 2000-2001 school year. Garfield’s enrollment in its final year was just 106 students.
Rapid City cardiologist Kelly Whitley bought the building for $400,000 at an auction later in 2001 and operated a children’s community arts center there for several years.
Engmann said the Whitley family first contacted Habitat for Humanity about converting the building into housing five or six years ago.
“At that point we didn’t have the capacity or the vision to take it on,” Engmann said.
He said Habitat for Humanity began working with the city on plans to turn the property into affordable housing a couple of years ago and closed on the property last summer.
“Over the last five years we’ve built a lot of homes in the community and learned a lot more about community development and developing this neighborhood approach. This project really fit the bill as a centerpiece for this neighborhood and things have fallen into place,” he said.
Patri Acevedo of ACV2 Architects, designer of the proposed triplex apartments, said open lots for development are difficult to find in such a long-established, older neighborhood.
“People could actually see the building turning into something, but we could never find anybody who could see value in the land,” Acevedo said. “Obviously Habitat for Humanity has a lot of value in that land.
“It was a pretty perfect marriage for somebody who wanted to develop the old building into residential units and do something with the land,” she said.
Pennington County records indicate that Black Hills Area Habitat for Humanity purchased the building and land for $300,000, then sold the building for $260,000 to Glenn Barber & Associates.
County records show the 2015 assessed value of the property is $249,600.
Bill Barber, vice-president and project manager at Glenn Barber & Associates, said his planners will draw upon experience gained by renovating old buildings in Deadwood and vintage homes around the area. They hope to turn Garfield’s classroom space into modern living space, including dealing with the building’s “old squeaky floors.”
“We’re pretty early in our part, so there’s a lot of questions to be addressed yet. It’s going to be a fun project,” he said. “That’s part of what attracted us to the project. It’s an area of town that’s ripe for revitalization and it’s just a nice opportunity to go into an older part of town and make it new for the future.”
Engmann said Habitat for Humanity will also work with the city to identify owners of existing homes in the surrounding neighborhood who need help with maintenance, including roofing and siding repairs, weatherization, landscaping, removal of lead-based paint and the addition of wheelchair ramps and hand grips.
“What we’ve seen is a lot of families who are aging, who have disabilities and can’t afford to move, get a home-equity loan or afford a subcontractor to come and do the necessary repairs, so they’re kind of stuck,” Engmann said.
“We can do all those repairs,” he said. “If the family truly needs the help, we’ll work with them.”
Renovating of the school building could begin next spring, with work to build an alley and add underground water, sewer and electrical service for the new construction underway as early as this fall.
“There’s not a lot that the city has to do. It’s not like we’re adding 12 new units outside of town that they have to extend services to,” Acevedo said.
Engmann said GBA will manage apartment rentals once the school remodeling is complete. He said the contractor is also helping a current building tenant, Ateyapi, an after-school mentoring program for Native American children, find another location.
Engmann said construction of the triplex buildings depends on obtaining $200,000 to fund the alley and utilities, with another $1.2 million needed to build the triplexes.
The Garfield building is in good shape considering its age. Renovation cost estimates for the school building are $1.5 million.
“It has some design challenges related to the existing floor plan, but the structure itself is very sound,” Engmann said. “You don’t find brick buildings of that scale available very often.”
Habitat is also working to identify potential residents to eventually own the new triplex apartments after meeting income requirements and investing 250 hours of work, called sweat equity, in their new homes, he said.
According to a Habitat for Humanity study the Garfield neighborhood, bordered by Anamosa Street, Haines Avenue, North Street and I-190 (West Boulevard), is home to 5,206 residents with 2,124 households.
Habitat for Humanity estimates the project will generate a $3.4 million overall economic impact, including new construction and improvements to surrounding homes.
The new family housing is also within walking distance of Founder's Park, downtown Rapid City and Main Street Square.
“We are pretty excited to see somebody bring new life to something that used to have life as a school," said Acevedo. “It’s pretty under-utilized. It’s going to be great.”