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Pittsburgh praised for school building sale efforts

| Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Pittsburgh Public Schools' decision to enlist outside help in selling vacant schools received an endorsement in a national study of 12 school districts that are trying to unload surplus buildings.

A report released Monday by The Pew Charitable Trusts of Philadelphia says, among other things, districts should get outside help in marketing what are usually difficult sells.

“It helps to broaden your ability to market the properties by utilizing experts whose core business is dealing with real estate,” said Peter Camarda, chief financial and operations officer for Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Last year, Pittsburgh hired Fourth River Development at $10,000 a month to manage sales of closed buildings. Notably, the company handled bids for the former Schenley High School in Oakland.

The school board will soon decide whether it should accept a bid recommended by a review committee of $5.2 million on Schenley. PMC Property Group of Philadelphia wants to convert the building into about 175 luxury apartments.

The report focused on what happens to district buildings when they become vacant.

“The longer that they're empty, the harder it is to find a new life,” said Emily Dowdall, senior associate of Pew's Philadelphia research initiative. “In some cases it's going to be very difficult to find a new use.”

In addition to Pittsburgh, the report reviewed buildings in the Detroit, Washington, D.C., Cincinnati, Cleveland, Atlanta, St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Mo., and Tulsa, Okla., districts.

The Pew report found that the 12 districts have sold, leased or reused 267 buildings since 2005, and 327 remain unused. Pittsburgh has sold, leased or reused 13 buildings, and 25 remain on the market.

Barriers to selling the buildings, the researchers found, include the local real estate market, how long the buildings have been empty and various laws and policies.

Camarda said many vacant schools here are in declining communities that make them less attractive for residential or commercial reuse.

“Another thing that makes it harder to sell is the majority of our buildings don't have a big footprint themselves,” he said, citing limited parking.

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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