Useful, Green, and Community-Minded

Conversion of use — adapting existing structures for unintentional occupancy — is a smart way for colleges to be green and save green. Reuse is more environmentally sustainable than new construction and significantly less expensive.

And, done right, there’s another benefit to adaptive reuse: improving community ties.

“The repurposing of existing buildings is not only economical and environmentally sound, but if done well leads to better town-gown relationships,” says Dr. Michael A. MacDowell, president of Misericordia University, which features a 124-acre residential campus in Dallas, PA, with an enrollment of 2,830 students.

Founded in 1924 by the Religious Sisters of Mercy, the University has adapted three unique community buildings to address record enrollments and in support of additional academic and community programs — while keeping costs low and community engagement high.

“By reusing buildings, you’re helping the community by putting something to use, you’re cutting your own costs, and by so doing, providing less expensive housing and keeping the cost-per-student down,” MacDowell observes.

New Life for a Funeral Home
The University recently completed renovations on the 5,483-sq.-ft. Machell Avenue Residence Hall, transforming the former Snowdon Funeral Home into living space for 26 upper-level and graduate students in the nearby John J. Passan Hall, which houses the College of Health Sciences.

Space was needed to keep up with increased enrollment, particularly in the health sciences, and a demand for graduate student housing. “Obviously, you don’t build residence halls until you need space — and we were quickly running out of space,” says MacDowell. “In the past four years, we had added about 150 beds and still didn’t have enough.”

Location was a consideration, too. The funeral home space offered a location close to campus for upper-level students, but provided easy access to off-campus sites for health science majors’ clinical assignments.

Renovating — instead of new construction — certainly made financial sense. Purchased for $445,000 and renovated for $390,000, the cost-per-bed for the converted building works out to about $36,000.

That’s about half the cost-per-bed than that of new construction. “For comparison, we’re building a 37,000-sq.-ft., $6.2M mixed-use building on campus now,” he says. “The cost there is $60,000 per bed.”

“We also take into consideration the impact of the community,” MacDowell adds. “The building was vacant and heading toward bankruptcy court. It wasn’t deteriorated yet, but it was going that way. We were able to take that property and put it back into use, housing students in the downtown area, where they add purchasing power and vibrancy.”

Early Outreach
The University has a history of reuse in the community. In 2009, Misericordia transformed a former telephone company headquarters into Passan Hall, the home of the College of Health Sciences.

“Like many colleges, we had bought local homes and made them into special-purpose houses,” says MacDowell, “but the Commonwealth Telephone Company building was our first major purchase and conversion.”

Purchased for $1.2M, a complete renovation of the three-story, 40,000-sq.-ft. building on Lake Street cost a total of $6M. It provides office, classroom, and state-of-the-art laboratory and teaching space for nursing, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech-language pathology majors, and includes two no- or low-cost clinics to serve hundreds of area residents in physical therapy and speech-language pathology.

“Misericordia has a national reputation for producing highly qualified health care professionals in multiple fields,’’ says MacDowell. “The central location of John J. Passan Hall is convenient for the community and expanded academic and clinical services at a time when the nation is experiencing a severe shortage of health care professionals.’’

In addition to the convenient location, the renovation was also wise financially. Constructing a new building equal in size would have cost the University at least one-third more, according to President MacDowell.

Dodges to Degas
The University further expanded its presence in Dallas Borough by establishing the Misericordia University Art Studios in support of its new minor in fine arts.

“We had a visual arts program many years ago, but like many colleges, we found it difficult to support,” MacDowell reports. “But as we’ve grown in size and as the capability of our students has increased, we found we had very good students who wanted to study physical therapy, but keep up with their painting. Or study history, but learn pottery. It made sense to think about at least a minor in the arts, but we had no facility on campus that was appropriate.”

In 2011, the University signed a long-term lease on the lower level of a former car dealership for use as art studios. The structure, which opened its doors in September, was renovated for $285,000 and includes classroom space and studios for ceramics, drawing, painting, and sculpture.

“It made perfect sense for us to use this building,” says MacDowell. “Art is being created in a space where they used to repair Dodges. It’s a perfect building for it: very high ceilings, well ventilated, with big garage doors for large artwork installations.”

And because of its downtown location, the college reached out to local adults and children to offer non-credit arts classes. The University’s artist-in-residence and local artists teach a series of non-credit beginner and intermediate classes in sculpture, painting, drawing, and fine crafts.

Think Creatively
Look carefully at local building vacancies for reuse projects, suggests MacDowell. “What makes a building a good candidate for reuse? It depends on the size of the building and what the future use will be. Our new arts building wouldn’t be appropriate as a regular classroom, but it’s perfect as studio space.”

The funeral home’s past as a home for priests made it a good candidate for a residence hall and eased renovation challenges. “It was built in 1950 as a funeral home, but at one point was purchased by a church as a residence for priests. They put in a few bedrooms and a lot of bathrooms, which is perfect for students.”

Making a Move
Think carefully about how you approach local municipalities when considering the purchase of area buildings, MacDowell advises. Letting your township or municipality know what you’re thinking before you do it has significant advantages.

“First, if you let them know your purchasing plans, they can tell you what problems you might face in terms of zoning,” offers MacDowell, who must work hand-in-glove with two sets of elected officials since the University is in both Dallas Borough and Dallas Township.

“Second, they can let you know if there’s something about which you are unaware. For example, all colleges buying property have to do at least a Level 1 Environmental Site Assessment. If someone in the municipality knows about potential issues, they can tell you. Finally, it’s just better for you to tell them than for them to find out another way.”

Having a campus presence downtown doesn’t always come without problems. “Any time you move college students into a community, there’s a possibility of trouble,” he says. “We’re fortunate to have good students who respect their neighbors, so we don’t usually have the problems some colleges do. But we also make an intentional effort whenever possible to be a part of the community. We host meetings for everyone from the local business association to the historical society. We invite residents to use our free campus shuttles. We offer up our parking lots during town events and at other times, and also host local high school athletic events. When you do those kinds of things, people think of you as part of their community. They’re not as suspect as to why you want to move downtown.”

For colleges that are willing to think creatively about the use of nearby buildings — and are flexible in working with local municipalities — repurposing buildings can work for both the schools and their communities.

“We see no downside to being a college town,” says Dallas Borough Mayor Timothy Carroll, who has worked with Misericordia on these reuse projects. “Having the University take over larger vacancies in our downtown to renovate for their purposes has been a great thing for us. Both the Machell Avenue and Lake Street properties would probably still be vacant without their involvement. They do a wonderful job in keeping their properties maintained, they provide their own security, they provide community programming and bring people into the downtown area.”

Adds MacDowell, “Creative reuse of local buildings really is a wonderful way to demonstrate to the community that you’re really a part of it and vice versa.” 

Laura Snyder
is an account executive for Dick Jones Communications with a decade of experience in writing on higher education topics.