Cooley High School redevelopment plan rejected by Detroit school board

After years of negotiations, the board of Detroit Public Schools Community District has rejected a local nonprofit’s proposal to turn the former Cooley High School into a community hub. 

Life Remodeled, which aims to revitalize neighborhoods with the help and cooperation of neighborhood organizations, announced the news Friday in a letter to area residents, Cooley alumni and community partners. The group made two final offers earlier this month–one with and another without the property’s athletics facility, founder and CEO Chris Lambert said in the letter. 

The board rejected both offers during a closed session at Tuesday’s school board meeting, according to the organization. 

“The first offer, for the complete property, was for $1 million in cash,” Lambert wrote.  “The second offer, excluding the approximately 5.7 acres of athletic property, was for $500,000 in cash, with the assurance of an eventual $1 million donation to DPSCD, should it wish to build an athletic complex on its own.” 

One side of the vacant Cooley High School on Detroit’s west side. Known in its heyday for its academics, athletics as well as its Mediterranean Revival architectural style, the building has decayed in recent years following its closure in 2010. Ethan Bakuli / Chalkbeat

Lambert said “despite fervent pleas” from neighbors and alumni, the board denied the proposals “without a public vote or discussion,” noting the group worked for more than three years to reach a deal that would allow for the transformation of the former school “for you and your neighbors to thrive.”

“As a result, this formerly grand building will continue to be in a state of decay for the foreseeable future rather than becoming what you, the School Board’s constituents, have enthusiastically stated you want for it to become,” Lambert added. 

Chrystal Wilson, assistant superintendent of communications for the district, in a Thursday statement to BridgeDetroit, confirmed that the plan was turned down.

“The school board has rejected the latest Life Remodeled offer because it did not include commitments prior to the sale that the building and land would be used as the sale proposal outlines,” she said in an email. “The school board is committed to ensuring that if the building and land are sold then the planned use occurs.”

Wilson added on Friday that since negotiations over the sale have now concluded, the district will explore alternative uses for the building and land. 

Differences arise 

Life Remodeled began conversations with the district in February 2020. The following year, the nonprofit publicly announced its plan for a Cooley community hub. 

Then last fall, Life Remodeled responded to a district-issued Request for Proposal (RFP), and, in November, DPSCD almost sold Cooley to Life Remodeled for $400,000 over another interested bidder, Pennsylvania-based Bridging the Gap Development. 

But Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the Life Remodeled proposal raised concerns among some board members over whether the district was underpricing the property, and how future owners would use the site, specifically a football field that was to be gifted to a junior college. Vitti at the time noted that plans for the field weren’t explicitly stated in the proposal. 

Rendering of a revived Cooley High School. (Rendering: Life Remodeled.)

Under district policy, DPSCD recognizes itself as a steward of publicly owned land and real estate and has an obligation to ensure that potential buyers of district property use it properly.

“The district made a formal recommendation (last year) to the school board that they selected Life Remodeled to be the purchasers of Cooley High School,” Life Remodeled COO Diallo Smith told BridgeDetroit. “At that point, the board didn’t have to approve the recommendation. And since then, they have vacillated back and forth on what they want to come out of the deal.”

After months without an update, Vitti discussed the project during an academic committee meeting last month after community members inquired about the status of the property. Vitti said that the deal was being held up over differing viewpoints on the terms of the sale. 

“I do not anticipate recommendations to sell Cooley to Life Remodeled for the March agenda items,” Vitti said at the time.

“At some point, we would have to come back together as a superintendent and board team and decide what we would like to do, considering that what was laid out as far as we wanted to see in an agreement is not going to be reached,” he said. “We have to discuss what the future of the Cooley property will look like.” 

According to the group’s letter, the board members dismissed the offers because they did not include “conditions, benchmarks, permitted use restrictions or other restrictive covenants, claw backs and/or profit-sharing clause(s) that the Board requires for the sale of Cooley High School and other district owned property.”

BridgeDetroit made several attempts to contact school board members about the project. 

Life Remodeled officials said they intend to seek out an alternative site to build the proposed facility or something similar. It’s unclear what the district’s next steps are. 

Meanwhile, Life Remodeled will work with the Cooley community later this year for their blight removal and beautification event Six-Day Project Oct. 2-7. 

From architectural gem to an eyesore 

Located at 15055 Hubbell Avenue, Cooley opened in 1928 and became one of Detroit’s most storied high schools, revered for its athletic programs as well as its Mediterranean Revival architectural style, reported Chalkbeat. 

Following a decline in student enrollment, the district closed the school in 2010. The next year, the school building was listed under the National Register of Historic Places.

Since its closure, residents in the community have called on DPSCS to either sell Cooley or reopen the school. 

The former high school is one of the largest empty public schools in Detroit, according to city documents. The 302,600-square-foot building is more than twice the size of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

The former library. (Photo: Freaktography)

For its community hub, Life Remodeled planned to house various nonprofits at Cooley, including a pediatric mental health center, vocational college and after school programs, Smith said. 

Nine tenants had signed on to operate out of the hub, such as Methodist Children’s Home Society, to offer the pediatric mental health center; the Detroit Training Center for those wanting to learn about skilled trades and Blue Cross Compete, which would have brought a health care resource center to the site. 

Life Remodeled has a similar facility at the old site of Durfee Elementary-Middle School called the Durfee Innovation Society. In 2017, when the school district was under emergency management, the organization won a $1-a-year lease for the site. 

Abandoned swimming pool.(Photo: Freaktography)

Residents, Cooley disappointed in board’s decision 

Francis Roland, a 51-year resident of the Hubbell-Lyndon neighborhood on Detroit’s west side, said in the nonprofit’s Friday letter that the board’s decision saddened her. 

“They are showing no consideration for the students and the community in our area,” said Roland, 77. “The outrageous demands by them (the board) on the Cooley sale is insulting to people like me who live here and have to deal with the blight, crime, and vandalism at Cooley High School every day.”

Charlotte Blackwell, 53, who lives in the nearby Happy Homes neighborhood, has spoken out at several school board meetings asking members to sell the school to Life Remodeled. She said she is devastated by the news. 

“I can’t believe that after fighting for almost three years, that things ended like this,” she said. 

Ken Woody, 55, said it’s been painful watching his alma mater sit vacant for 13 years. 

Graduating from Cooley in 1985, some of Woody’s favorite memories are playing on the football field with his friends and getting his ID badge as a freshman. Woody remembers being amazed by the massive campus on his first day of school. 

“This is the biggest fumble in Detroit history,” he said. “There is a massive opportunity in front of DPSCD to do something incredible that the community wants and they totally dropped the ball.”

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