North Side Landmark Set for Transformation 

Old Highland Park School will be turned into apartments.

click to enlarge Christopher LoPiano of Community Preservation and Development Corp. says the nonprofit plans to convert the old Highland Park School into 77 apartments for low-income seniors now living in public housing.

Scott Elmquist

Christopher LoPiano of Community Preservation and Development Corp. says the nonprofit plans to convert the old Highland Park School into 77 apartments for low-income seniors now living in public housing.

The ongoing, if painstakingly slow revitalization of the North Side is about to get a boost from a Washington-based nonprofit developer of affordable housing.

Community Preservation and Development Corp. is buying the old Highland Park School, a landmark on a pie-shaped slice of land in the commercial heart of Six Points at Second Street and Brookland Park Boulevard.

The Mediterranean Revival-style building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is the lesser-known cousin of architect Charles Robinson’s most-recognized Richmond school building, Thomas Jefferson High School.

In its 106 years, the Highland Park building has gone from school to senior citizen residence to a foreclosed-upon squat. Thieves stripped it of copper wiring and bathroom fixtures. Homeless families filled its cabinets with dishes and its closets with clothes. In one unit, there remains cutlery in the drawers and a calendar on the wall turned to November 2012.

By the time Chris LoPiano laid eyes on it in the spring of 2013, “the school was a mess,” he says. “Windows were broken everywhere. The roof was leaking. There was water damage and mold. There had been dozens of people living in there.”

LoPiano is an executive with Community Preservation and Development, which plans to rehab the building — within the rules governing historic structures — and turn it into 77 one-bedroom apartments for low-income seniors.

The future tenants now live in Gilpin Court’s Fay Towers. The affordable housing nonprofit is demolishing that building as part of a federal grant that allows shared public and private investment in the replacement of aged public housing that, thanks to budget cuts, almost certainly will never get long-overdue maintenance and upgrades. Richmond Redevelopment and Housing says that once all Fay Towers residents have been housed elsewhere and the building demolished, the land will be set aside for future redevelopment.

The Highland Park project will cost nearly $11 million, LoPiano says, and will be financed through a variety of tax credits, grants and loans. As in Fay Towers, residents will pay one-third of their income toward rent. The rest of the roughly $750-a-month rent will be federally subsidized.

The nonprofit also has purchased a rundown house and the dilapidated-beyond-repair church building directly across Brookland Park Boulevard. Both structures are coming down, LoPiano says, and everything that can be salvaged will be. The general plan is to build a mix of retail and housing.

The purchase of the crumbling church and house were key to community support, says Councilwoman Ellen Robertson, who lives in the neighborhood. Affordable housing for seniors is great, she says, but it’s not enough. The community already tried that, she says, and what resulted was a developer who stayed put for the 15-year life of the low-income tax credits and then skedaddled, selling the building and leaving the struggling neighborhood no better off.

“We don’t want to go through that cycle again,” Robertson says, noting that Community Preservation and Development has a record of maintaining ownership of its affordable housing after tax credits expire.

“The school building is fabulous,” Robertson says. “But we don’t want it to become an island surrounded by blighted property with folks just locked in their houses because there is nothing for them in the neighborhood.”

LoPiano says the nonprofit expects to close on the school in June, begin construction in August and open a year later.


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